MADISON, Wis. — A Wisconsin defense, now without key playmaker senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel, will have to play and stop an explosive Michigan offense this Saturday in the Big House in Ann Arbor.
No. 4 Michigan (4-0) averages 52 points per game in their first four games of the season. Looking into what makes this offense such an obvious threat, the biggest answer is the balance in their offensive scheme.
“I think the first thing is they are very balanced,” defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard said. “They can be very physical and pound the football in the run game, but then they also have the skilled athletes on the outside to through it vertically, throw a quick game. They can kind of do a little bit of everything on offense. It makes it very difficult for a defense. You have to prepare for a lot.”
The offense starts with, similar to Wisconsin, a young quarterback who has shown early success in the first four games. Redshirt freshman Wilton Speight has a current quarterback rating of 151.9, completing 63.2% of his throws for nine touchdowns and one interception.
“He’s played with great preparation and confidence and poise,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s unusual to be that new to playing, really in big games.”
Harbaugh praised newly transitioned fullback Khalid Hill for his exceptional performance this season. Hill currently has four rushing touchdowns and six receptions for 47 yards.
“I think it’s his spot,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a real natural position for him. He’s tough. He’s got the size and the strength to be a prototypical type of fullback. He’s got the catching ability, and he’s got the added attribute of being able to run with the football.”
In the running game is also senior DeVeon Smith, who currently has 39 carries for 259 yards and two touchdowns. He averages 64.8 yards per game and is a very physical running back. Alongside Smith is breakout freshman Chris Evans, who has 29 carries for 213 yards and three touchdowns.
In Michigan’s passing game, the leading receiver is graduate student Amara Darbo, who has 17 catches for 248 yards and four touchdowns. Behind Darboh is senior Jake Butt, one of the best tight ends in the nation, with 19 receptions for 234 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Jehu Chesson, who was expected to have a big impact season, is third in receptions with eight receptions for 145 yards.
Michigan’s offensive line played exceptionally well in their 49-10 win against Penn State. With outside linebacker Vince Biegel out with a foot injury, Wisconsin’s defense may be a little out of sync, creating an easier day for the Michigan offensive line.
A final key player to watch for is junior linebacker/safety Jabrill Peppers who Chryst called potentially “the best in college football.” While this season Peppers has been making the most difference on special teams and defense, in such a high-ranked matchup, expect to see him more on the offensive side as well.
Harbaugh cannot go unnoticed in his ability to bring Michigan out of the dark and into the #4 spot in the country in his second season as head coach.
“Jim’s a really good football coach. I think he’s got a really good staff and obviously they’ve got really good players. He did it at San Diego, did it at Stanford and had success with the 49ers and is doing it at Michigan,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said.
Wisconsin recognizes Michigan’s all-encompassing talent and is prepared to stop both the run and the pass with their consistent precision on defense.
“They have the talent. They have the scheme. They have the guys calling the plays,” cornerback Sojourn Shelton said.
“They’re very talented; they have some very skilled positions,” Biegel said. “I can already tell on film they are very well coached. They have some tight ends who are strong, and I can already tell Jim Harbaugh’s done a really great job of tailoring and coaching up the quarterback position. They’ve got multiple running backs that can run the ball.”
Leonhard said in order to stop Michigan’s offense, the defense has to perform and execute in all aspects of the game.
“You’ve got to stop the run. They’re more than happy to just run the ball down than throw it all game. If you manage to that, then it’s finding ways to get off the field on third down,” Leonhard said.
“Those are the biggest two things. Outside of that then it’s turnovers. If you find a way to create turnovers, get the ball in our offense’s hand, get the time of possession in our favor, then you’ve got an opportunity to win.”
This Saturday, #8 Wisconsin heads to Ann Arbor to take on #4 Michigan. Two redshirt freshman and two physical defenses will work to keep their undefeated record in the Big House.
“We play a very physical opponent, a very good opponent, and yeah, there’s an opportunity to show what you can do up there as a football player,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve always believed that good football players, that’s kind of why they get together for games. Good football players going against each other to show who the best is; that’s the best thing about football, that competition.”
Photo courtesy of Michigan Athletics.