Michigan Monday: Badgering The Witnesses

For the first time in Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan tenure, the Wolverines have won as a road underdog.

Ye olde Maize and Blue went into Madison as 2-point dogs on Saturday and left as 38-17 victors valiant. Wisconsin tried as much as they could, but the Wolverines were too effective on defense and just effective enough on offense.

This has been a disaster of a season for Wisconsin and Michigan decided to make things even worse by handing the Badgers their worst home loss since an inexplicable 37-15 loss to Minnesota in 2018.

Michigan shut down the Badger running game, joining Notre Dame in holding Wisconsin under 100 yards rushing the last two weeks. Wisconsin’s average yards per play (3.82) on Saturday was virtually identical to the 3.84 they managed against Penn State. The big difference between those two games, however, is that the Badgers somehow ran 40 more plays against the Nittany Lions than they did against the Wolverines.

Michigan is now 5-0 on the season, yet only ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll and No. 8 in the Coaches Poll. That’s indicative of the lack of any quality wins, and probably also a tad indicative of the Rutgers game a week ago proving some doubters correct.

I don’t know how good Michigan is this season. Their flaws come and go and they have yet to face anybody who is talented enough to make them pay for those flaws.

Any time you go into Madison and win 38-17, however, you’re certainly better than the doubters think you are.

When Michigan Was On Offense

For the 11th time in their last 20 contests against Power 5 opponents, Michigan was held under 400 yards of total offense. They have been held under 400 yards of total offense in all three contests against Power 5 opponents this year.

Michigan’s offense is like a living room carpet with two big stains and only one area rug. Sometimes the running game stain is covered up, but that just leaves a glairing stain visible for all to see in the passing game. The last two weeks, that area rug has been placed over the stain on the passing game, leaving the deep red blemish visible on the running game.

One week after rushing for 112 yards against Rutgers, the Wolverines did the same thing against the Badgers. They ran the ball 44 times against Wisconsin, averaging 2.6 yards per carry. Michigan is still leading the Big Ten in rushing at 255 yards per game, but they’ve seen their average drop 95 yards in the past two weeks.

Running backs Blake Corum (15-46) and Hassan Haskins (19-47) were contained for the second week in a row. The longest rush of the day was an 8-yarder by Haskins. One week after combining for a season-low 109 yards rushing, the formerly dynamic duo managed just 93 yards on 34 attempts.

Wisconsin has a very good rush defense, so some struggles were expected. A relative inability to run the ball, however, is not a great sign for a team that is eventually going to have to run the ball in order to win a game.

One thing the Wolverines will have in their corner is Jim Harbaugh’s aggression on fourth down. He had Michigan go for it five times on short-yardage situations. They picked up four of them, with two of those drives ending in touchdowns. If Michigan punts on those possessions, you can go ahead and take 14 points off the board for the Wolverines and now you’ve got a much closer game with no room for error.

However, lack of errors is one of the best things that can be said of Michigan’s passing game right now. Quarterback Cade McNamara is a safe guy with the ball but finally took some risks and had some success down the field.

I have said it here and also on our Michigan Monday podcast with Tom Orr that McNamara needs to take some shots downfield and throw up some 50/50 balls for Michigan’s taller receivers. There were at least four passes thrown up for grabs on Saturday and the Wolverines came down with their fair share.

McNamara completed 17-of-28 passes for 197 yards with two touchdowns. He has now thrown the ball 152 times without an interception, and with me typing that sentence out, I will openly apologize for any interceptions this coming weekend at Nebraska.

McNamara has been careful this season and despite the lack of interceptions, his reliance on short-yardage passing has him ranked just 12th in the Big Ten in yards passing and sixth in pass efficiency. He is throwing for 33 fewer yards than Joe Milton did last year, but he also has five wins as a starting quarterback this year and that’s really the most important number for a quarterback.

Cornelius Johnson caught two passes for 47 yards on Saturday, with both catches going for touchdowns. Daylen Baldwin also scored on a 56-yard yard bomb down the sideline from freshman JJ McCarthy. Roman Wilson led the team with six catches for 81 yards. I have previously said that Wilson wasn’t really one of the guys I’d expect to go up and get a jump ball, but he definitely did that on Saturday and it was a great sight to see for the Wolverines.

It was interesting to see the way Jim Harbaugh worked McCarthy into the game early on, mainly to hand the ball off. I assume it’s because Michigan’s starting quarterback rarely makes it through an entire season and also because McCarthy is only going to sit so long. Any kind of action helps build his experience and will allow him to really push for the starting job next year.

Even though he was just handing off early on, it says something that Harbaugh has that kind of trust in McCarthy on the road in a hostile venue.

Michigan has been getting excellent pass blocking from their offensive line, but the run blocking needs to get better. As does the selection of running plays.

When Michigan Was On Defense

The Wolverines completely shut down Wisconsin’s running game, but they aren’t the first defense to do that this year. This is not your father’s Wisconsin running game. It’s not even your slightly older brother’s Wisconsin running game.

The Badgers haven’t been able to run the ball since Jonathan Taylor left for the NFL and matters are only getting worse. Michigan held them to just 43 yards on 32 carries Saturday. Wisconsin lost 41 yards on TFLs and sacks, so let’s also not put all of the blame on lack of talent at running back.

Michigan’s defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage and handled the Badgers up front with ease. And that was with talented tight end Jake Ferguson staying in to help block as well.

Rush end/OLB David Ojabo led the team with seven tackles, including 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He has always been an athlete, but he showed some pass-rush skills in this one. If they can continue to get pressures from him, he is going to make everybody behind him better.

The Wolverines also got sacks from defensive tackles Chris Hinton and Mazi Smith, while guys like Mike Morris and Taylor Upshaw had some moments as well. Aidan Hutchinson also played well, which is what he has done every game this year. He had a half-sack in this game and now leads the Big Ten in that category with 5.5.

Linebackers Josh Ross and Nikhai Hill-Green had some explosive moments and they continue to be very very solid.

The front seven held their own in this one, but they didn’t face any kind of test. It’s a sad state of Wisconsin affairs when Rutgers is a more formidable offense than the Badgers, but that is where we are right now.

Safety Daxton Hill knocked Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz out of the game with a blitz, and then very nearly did the same to backup Chase Wolf not too much later. Hill also had an interception of Wolf in this game.

Perhaps I’ve missed it happening earlier this season, but Michigan employed a three-man rotation at cornerback as DJ Turner joined starters Gemon Green and Vincent Gray throughout the afternoon. This was an opportunity for all three to gain some confidence, but confidence can be fleeting from week to week.

As long as Michigan keeps sacking the quarterback six times a game like they did on Saturday, the cornerbacks are going to be just fine.

The Michigan Special Teams

It was an uneventful day on special teams, which is rarely a bad thing. Brad Robbins punted four times, averaging 44.8 yards per attempt and put three of his four kicks inside the 20-yard line. Receiver AJ Henning had a 19-yard punt return as he continues to be a guy to pay attention to every single week.

Jacob Moody made all three of his field goal attempts (26, 47, 48), so that’s a good week for the veteran. Michigan also converted on a 2-point conversion if you’d like to count that among the special teams successes.

To paraphrase Jim Tressel, as long as each possession ends in some kind of kick, that’s better than turning the ball over. Wisconsin was evidence of that after having a Michigan punt bounce off of a Badger that was then recovered by a Wolverine at the Wisconsin 5-yard line.

Boring special teams can often be better than exciting special teams because you just never know on which side of that ledger you’re gonna find your name.

Michigan has been better than solid on special teams this year and it has absolutely been a strength for them. With an offense that has its ups and downs, and a defense that hasn’t yet convinced everybody, winning the field of position battle is going to make life much easier for this team.

For instance, Wisconsin started four of their 13 drives beyond their own 25-yard line. Michigan, meanwhile, started three of their 15 drives inside the Badger 35-yard line and 11 of 15 beyond their own 25-yard line. The Wolverines also did a great job making their own luck in this game.

What Does It All Mean?

It means that Michigan is good enough to not play their best and still knock around Wisconsin on their home turf. Even in a down year for the Badgers, that’s worth paying attention to.

But it doesn’t do them any good in Lincoln next week. The pass rush will need to continue to produce. Will Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez be able to extend plays, or will the Wolverines force him into mistakes?

Michigan won’t be playing a predictable, less-talented version of themselves next week. They’ll be playing a different style of offense than they see in practice every day. It’s going to be an interesting test, and we will know even more about the Wolverine defense after this game.

It also means that slow and steady is currently winning the race, but there are still seven more heats to go, and that last one in late November is gonna be a full-speed sprint.

Michigan is second in the Big Ten in scoring (39.8 ppg), but in two conference games, that number comes down to 29 points per game. In conference play, the Wolverines are 12th in total offense, averaging just 320 yards per game.

That’s not exactly the kind of offense that is going to give Ohio State’s improving defense trouble, is it? And even if it does, can it give the Buckeyes enough trouble to win a shootout?

Michigan’s defense hasn’t faced an offense worth being concerned about since 2019.

That’s going to change this year. Ohio State is leading the nation in yards per play (8.6), and that number actually increases to 9.3 yards per play in conference games.

It’s good that Michigan is opening up their passing game, but it’s very unfortunate for them that it isn’t leading to an easier running game.

Michigan is going to need to improve and pair its running game and passing game at some point this season. If this is what the Wolverines’ running game is now, that’s going to be very costly. And the passing game won’t be able to carry them when it comes to a shootout against a quality opponent.

The good news for Michigan is that the passing game is opening up and we have seen this team run the ball very, very well this season. Everything the Wolverines need to do to win every game on their schedule has been seen at some point this season, it just hasn’t been seen the last two weeks.

I don’t know if we’ve seen the real Wolverines yet this season, but this win against Wisconsin was probably the most accurate depiction of what we’ll see against other quality defenses this year. If those defenses also have offenses attached to them, Michigan better be ready for a fight.

The Road To The Game

Sept 4 – Michigan 47 – Western Michigan 14 (1-0)
Sept 11 – Michigan 31 – Washington 10 (2-0)
Sept 18 – Michigan 63 – Northern Illinois 10 (3-0)
Sept 25 – Michigan 20 – Rutgers 13 (4-0, 1-0)
Oct 2 – Michigan 38 – Wisconsin 17 (5-0, 2-0)
Oct 9 at Nebraska
Oct 23 vs Northwestern
Oct 30 at Michigan State
Nov 6 vs Indiana
Nov 13 at Penn State
Nov 20 at Maryland
Nov 27 vs Ohio State