When No. 13 Wisconsin (1-0) fans highlighted this Saturday’s game against Michigan (1-2) on their calendar, they probably anticipated it would be among the teams most pivotal in the race to win the Big Ten West. And, while that remains the case, no one could have foreseen the circumstances leading up to the game for both teams.
After Michigan made easy work of then-No. 21 Minnesota in a 49-24 rout in week one, the Wolverines looked the part of a Big Ten contender. And, when Wisconsin dispatched Illinois 45-7 behind a sparkling performance from Graham Mertz, it set the stage for a potential top 10 showdown in Ann Arbor three weeks later.
To say things have changed since then would be an understatement.
Two days after Wisconsin’s victory over Illinois, it was reported that quarterback Graham Mertz had tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, the Badgers still planned on playing Nebraska the following Saturday, but by that Wednesday the situation was untenable, with 12 players having tested positive. The following week’s game against Purdue was also cancelled.
That delay was immensely frustrating for Badger players and fans alike, but Michigan fans probably would have preferred the two week reprieve over their results these past two Saturdays.
In what has been described as the team’s most embarrassing loss since the infamous loss to Appalachian State in 2007, the Wolverines were felled 27-24 by in-state rival Michigan State in week two despite closing as more than three-touchdown favorites. The Spartans — who turned the ball over seven times in a loss to Rutgers the week prior — torched the Michigan defense through the air, with receiver Ricky White finishing with 196 yards and a touchdown.
A week three trip to Bloomington didn’t go any better for Michigan. The Hoosiers, who have been the story of the Big Ten so far, hung 38 points on Don Brown’s defense, with Indiana quarterback Michael Penix throwing for 342 yards and three touchdowns. Indiana, a three-point underdog, ended up winning by 17 points, the first time the Hoosiers had beaten Michigan in 33 years.
Just two weeks after what appeared to be a statement win at Minnesota, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Brown are now fighting for their jobs. Simply put, the Michigan staff cannot afford to drop another game. The Wolverines still have to play Penn State, and a loss at Ohio Stadium on rivalry week feels all but inevitable. If Michigan drops this game to Wisconsin, a 4-4 season is practically the best case scenario, with 3-5 a distinct possibility, if not a probability.
The game is a must-win for Wisconsin as well. As the Badgers stood idly these past two weeks, Northwestern improved to 3-0 and Purdue to 2-0. The Big Ten West will be awarded to the team with the highest win percentage that has played six games, leaving the Badgers in an unenviable position.
Wisconsin’s game against Purdue has already been cancelled, leaving the team’s Big Ten West fate out of their hands. If the Boilermakers win out, Wisconsin, no matter how well they play, cannot win the division.
Purdue, however, still has to play Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana. If they drop one of those games, Wisconsin could play their way back into the Big Ten title game, but the team’s margin of error is practically zero. A loss to Michigan this Saturday would all but erase any hopes of the team returning to Indianapolis, and the Wolverines, despite their rocky start, are undoubtedly the most talented team Wisconsin has to play, making the game all the more crucial.
With so much hanging in the balance, the Badgers would have liked to enter this game fully healthy. Instead, the status of many of the team’s players remains hidden under a shroud of uncertainty. At one point over the past two weeks, fifteen Wisconsin players have tested positive for COVID-19. Outside of QB Graham Mertz and QB Chase Wolf, we have no knowledge of who those fifteen are and whether or not they’ll be available to play.
Big Ten rules mandate that any player who tests positive for COVID-19 must refrain from competition for three weeks. Mertz, who tested positive two Saturdays ago, should be eligible to play against Michigan. The Badger coaching staff, however, is keeping their cards close to their vest when it comes to the status of Mertz and the rest of those who have tested positive.
“The question mark is Graham,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph told the media. “He’s in the protocol. We’ve got to see how this week progresses with him. Does he get through it? Does he get to practice? Where would he be at that point? In the meantime, we’ve had good practices and feel good about the guys that are rolling. A little bit of uncertainty there. But the guys that have practiced I think are ready to go.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was similarly coy when discussing who might be available on defense.
“I know we will do our best to make sure there are 11 people on the field every play,” Leonhard said. “I think in hockey that’s called full strength. That’s all I can guarantee. You’re preparing for so many different things … It’s fun as a coach. You’re preparing for a lot of different things. You’re going through a lot of what-if scenarios.”
Mertz’s availability, in particular, is imperative to the success of the team. Michigan’s secondary has been hapless this season, and the pass rush is missing star defensive lineman Aiden Hutchinson, who fractured his leg against Indiana. Edge rusher Kwity Paye, a potential top 10 selection in next year’s NFL Draft, is questionable to play after missing last week’s game against Indiana.
The state of Michigan’s battered defense makes it even more important that Wisconsin take advantage of the Wolverines in the passing game, where Michigan has struggled mightily to begin the season. Mertz, who finished 20 of 21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns against Illinois, should have a field day if he’s available to play.
Defensively, the Badgers must key in on stopping the run and force Michigan quarterback Joe Milton to beat them through the air. Indiana held Michigan to just 13 yards on 18 carries, and Milton struggled to jumpstart the offense without the help of the running game. Milton did throw for 344 yards, but also committed two backbreaking turnovers, including an inexplicable interception in the third quarter after Michigan had generated some momentum.
Milton has a gigantic arm and has shown flashes of big play ability through three weeks as a starter, but is inconsistent in the intermediate game and has struggled to make plays when his first read isn’t open. If Milton is forced to move the offense on his own, Wisconsin may be able generate turnovers and dominante the game flow.
Vegas sportsbooks currently have Wisconsin as five-point favorites to beat the Wolverines on Saturday, but Ann Arbor has not been kind to the Badgers in the 21st century. Wisconsin has just one win at the Big House since 1994, and will need to change that on Saturday if they want to have any hope at winning the Big Ten west and competing for a spot in the college football playoff.