If Wisconsin fans thought last week’s test versus Iowa would be a make or break moment for the team, this weekend’s matchup versus No. 24 Michigan takes that expectation to another level.
After moving up in the College Football Playoff rankings from No. 8 overall to No. 5, Wisconsin finds itself yet again on the outside looking in with playoff hopes on the horizon. The Badgers, however, are in the unique position where they control their own destiny. Regardless of what happens to the four teams ranked above them, if Wisconsin wins out, including a Big Ten Championship victory, they’ll punch their ticket to the playoff.
Michigan, the highest caliber opponent to test Wisconsin this season, boasts a similar team identity to the Badgers. They showcase an elite defense, but lackluster offense. As such, Saturday’s victor could be decided by which defense puts on a better performance.
Wisconsin fans have had Saturday marked on their calendars for months. Here are the players to watch from both sides.
Offense: Offensive Line
This may not be a specific player, but you get the idea. Michigan are owners of the third best defense in the country, ranking behind only Alabama and Wisconsin. Their pass, rush and total defense all rank in the top ten nationally. They also rank sixth in sacks and are tied for fourth in tackles for loss.
The numbers are clear, Michigan is an offensive line’s worst nightmare. They’re fast, shifty and determined to demolish any offensive momentum. As such, the Wisconsin offensive line will need to assemble their most complete and dominant game of the year if Jonathan Taylor or Alex Hornibrook have any hope of putting together successful drives.
Shifting blockers, picking up blitzes and creating a workable pocket should equate to scores down the line. Given Wisconsin’s defensive dominance, it’s not unreasonable to assume Michigan’s hobbled offense could struggle, meaning the offense will have to capitalize on a game that may be up for grabs.
Defense: T.J. Edwards
With Chris Orr out, the linebackers take another blow. But as long as T.J. Edwards in on the pitch, Wisconsin’s linebackers rank among the best in the country. Edwards is special in that both his pass and rush defense are strong, so his threat level is at an all-time high.
His ability to stay involved in crucial plays will go a long way for the Wisconsin defense. With 32 solo tackles on the season, good for second on the team, including four interceptions, Edward’s role cannot be overstated as a central pillar to Wisconsin’s defensive success.
Offense: Brandon Peters
Michigan’s third starter at quarterback this season, Peters will get the keys to the offense for his fifth start Saturday. He’s performed adequately thus far, completing 28/46 pass attempts for 329 total yards, four passing touchdowns and no interceptions.
Peters, a sophomore, is rather inexperienced, with only four games to his name. He’s also never surpassed 150 yards passing in a game, suggesting his role is minimal.
Wisconsin will need to make sure to keep it that way. Peters’ contributions on offense, including his decision making under pressure, may characterize Michigan’s performance overall.
Defense: Chase Winovich
Winovich, a senior defensive lineman, is one of Michigan’s most effective pass rushers. Logging a team high seven sacks on the year as well as 14 tackles for loss, Winovich’s presence must always be in the back of Wisconsin’s mind.
If Winovich can make Saturday a characteristically dominant performance, Wisconsin is in for a long afternoon. Keeping Winovich at bay makes the lives of Hornibrook and Taylor that much easier, and a crucial win for Wisconsin that much more attainable.
To put it simply, Wisconsin has to win Saturday. With a loss comes an absolute certainty that they will be left off of the College Football Playoff selection committee’s ballot.