Wisconsin will resume Big Ten play this week with another ranked rival from the Eastern Division. No.14 ranked Michigan comes to town on Saturday, along with yet another Fox Sports Big Noon Kickoff crew. This game has been a spectacle in recent years, but these Badgers look nothing like the team that blew out Michigan in the Big House last year 49-11. In order for Wisconsin to get back on track against a tough Wolverine team, they must do three things exceptionally well.
1) Get Graham Mertz in rhythm early
Memories of Graham Mertz dicing up Illinois through the air to begin the 2020 season, impressing even the great Patrick Mahomes, are long gone. Mertz came to Wisconsin football as their highest quarterback recruit ever, and has understandably carried massive expectations. Not only has Mertz failed to live up to the hype, he’s failed to even be a serviceable game manager, which is historically all the Badgers need to be highly successful.
Wisconsin is still a run-first team, but getting Mertz a few quick completions early on will be crucial. No matter how stout the defense or how punishing the running game, Mertz will be forced to carry the Badgers in key moments. Paul Chryst needs to call plays that get him in rhythm early, allowing Mertz to ride the emotional highs that fuel his flashes of brilliance.
2) Disrupt Michigan’s rushing attack
Michigan football is looking as well-coached and cohesive as they have in some time in the Jim Harbaugh era. The offense they’ve been trying to implement since offensive coordinator Josh Gattis arrived in Ann Arbor finally seems to have found its rhythm. The Wolverines deploy two running backs almost equally, and thus far they’ve carried the offense. Sophomore Blake Corum is the lead back, but only by eight carries. He splits time with senior Hassan Haskins, and the two have combined for an impressive 797 yards and 13 touchdowns. Junior quarterback Cade McNamara has been adequate for Michigan so far, but the ground game is the heartbeat of this offense. Michigan has 17 rushing scores to only 4 through the air. If Wisconsin’s front seven can stand tall, the Badgers will be in this game down to the wire.
3) Force mistakes, don’t make them
Wisconsin’s execution has been sloppy this year, to say the least. The Badgers have been to the red zone 13 times and only come away with eight scores, a .615 percentage — the fourth-worst in the nation. Graham Mertz single-handedly had five turnovers against Notre Dame, including two pick-sixes. Wisconsin is entering must-win mode, and any untimely error can cost the game, or even the season.
To stay mistake-free, the Badgers must start by limiting the Wolverines top NFL prospect Aidan Hutchinson. The crafty defensive end already has 4.5 sacks, and he can wreck the kind of havoc in a backfield that decides games. To try to force some mistakes of their own, the Badgers defense should look to rattle Cade McNamara. He’s been efficient for Michigan but still shows growing pains, like making the wrong read on a read option play, which he did several times against Rutgers. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is sure to dial up some creative blitz packages to try to confuse McNamara.