So I've told you why Michigan worries me. Here's what I think will go down:
At 108,000 seats, the Big House is no Fresno State. At least not this year. Those 42,000 Bulldog fans were amped up, crazy about winning the biggest home game in their program's history, and they were going to let the Badgers know it. Big Blue, on the other hand, is reeling, questioning, fuming, and generally unenthusiastic about losses to Utah at home, and the hated Notre Dame. Sure, this game is a chance to get back on track, but if they fumble the ball away in the first quarter, that place will be quiet enough to hear a football drop.
But that doesn't mean the Wolverines will roll over and go away. Notre Dame had its best running performance so far against Michigan, whereas Michigan State shut Notre Dame's backs down. Why? Michigan expected Notre Dame to pass the ball, Michigan State dared them to. There's no questioning what Michigan will do this week: try and force Evridge to beat them with his arm. Of course, first they actually have to stop the Badgers from running the ball.
Wisconsin's greatest strength is its line. It's not just that they are big, they are athletic, too. Center John Moffit, the least experienced -- the only non-returning starter -- is a beast. Go back and watch him. If he isn't the best center in the nation by the time he's a senior I'll be surprised. Seriously. Now, the Badger line won't have their way with the Michigan front 7, but they will push them hard. Michigan won't get gashed, but PJ will finally get over 100 yards against them. So, with 8 guys in the box trying to stop the run (sometimes succeeding, sometimes not), how will Evridge fare?
Michigan's corners, Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren, will hold up fine against Gilreath and Jefferson (who will try to stretch the field, but probably won't). But Garrett Graham and Travis Beckum, returning to his '06-'07 form, present real problems to a defense keyed on stopping the run. This is where Chryst's offense really excels. Run the ball hard, turn to play action, and see if any of Michigan's linebackers can sniff out the play and cover Beckum or Graham . . . or both. They can't, at least not consistently. Evridge needs to be able to get them the ball and not throw picks. In addition, look for a handful of designed runs for Evridge. This is something we haven't seen yet this season, but he has the talent for it, and Bielema hinted we will start to see a little more of it.
Now, don't get me wrong, the Badgers aren't going to steamroll a pretty solid Michigan defense, but they will sustain a few drives and put points on the board.
When Michigan has the ball, the key for the Badgers is to finish tackles. Threet is improving at Quarterback and McGuffie is dangerous in space, but the entire offense is too inexperienced to really throw any wrinkles into the offense. As a result, with two weeks to study film, the Badger D will know what's coming. Casillas, Levy, and McFadden, with their speed, should be in position all day to shut down the screens Michigan loves to throw to McGuffie. Nonetheless, McGuffie will likely have a big play or two due to poor Badger tackling.
The Badger d-line, while not deep, is experienced, solid, and should be able to manage, if not control, the line against the inexperienced Michigan offensive line. Greg Matthews is a bit of a threat at WR and is better than the Badger corners, but Threet won't have a lot of time to get him the ball. I expect him to come down with one or two big passing plays, but not enough to fundamentally change the game.
Special teams favor Wisconsin. Gilreath has been solid, bordering on dangerous, returning the ball, and Welch and Nortman are surprisingly reliable kickers (especially Nortman punting). The Wolverine return teams have been suspect, to say the least.
Overall, I see the Badgers with a significant, but not huge, advantage when they have the ball, a slight advantage when playing defense (because Michigan will likely hurt them with a couple of big plays), and a moderate advantage in special teams. Unless the Wolverines come out very strong, the crowd won't likely be a factor. Moreover, turnovers have consistently hurt Michigan. While I'm still nervous about PJ holding onto the ball, Michigan is near the bottom of the Big Ten in turnover margin (at -3).
I don't see a blowout, but I see a strong showing from the Badgers, and a rare win in Ann Arbor: 23-13, Wisconsin.
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