Michigan 38, Wisconsin 17

Michigan 38, Wisconsin 17

October 3, 2021
David Ojabo (image via MLive)

Michigan’s defense won the day. The scoreboard says 38 points for Michigan, which is a good amount of points, but the Wolverines won the game with their defense. They held the Badgers to 43 total rushing yards, which is their lowest total since they had -26 yards against Northwestern in November 2015. Wisconsin’s leading rusher was freshman Braelon Allen, who ran 5 times for 19 yards. Those overall numbers were aided by -13 yards from backup quarterback Chase Wolf and -21 yards from starting quarterback Graham Mertz, who were sacked a total of 5 times. Wisconsin’s only real sustained success was a drive near the end of the first half when Mertz was 5/5 and threw a touchdown to wide receiver Chimere Dike.

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Michigan is a walking team. For the last couple weeks, Michigan’s running game has been more of a walking team. After the starting running backs averaged 3.4 and 3.2 yards per carry last week, this week it was 2.5 yards (Hassan Haskins) and 3.1 (Blake Corum). Of course, it was against Wisconsin, the leading rushing defense in the country, but last week the team stopping the run consistently was Rutgers. I believe that Michigan will get back to running the ball effectively in the coming weeks, so this isn’t a permanent damper. But if anyone believed that Michigan was going to steamroll the Big Ten and lead the country in rushing – or be close to it – for the remainder of the season, that was clearly a mirage. The Wolverines are now tied for #8 in rushing yards per game with 255, and the past two weeks, they have been held to 112 yards.

Cade McNamara played better than the numbers suggest. Michigan came out throwing – surprisingly, on the first play of the game – and it didn’t work out too well. The Wolverines suffered a few drops early from Cornelius Johnson (2) and Daylen Baldwin (1), plays in which the receivers got two hands on the ball and couldn’t reel them in. They weren’t perfect throws, but they shouldn’t have been dropped by high-level receivers. Instead of getting frustrated, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis still stuck with the pass more than in past weeks, and it worked out well. McNamara (17/28, 197 yards, 2 touchdowns) eventually got on the same page with his receivers, and backup J.J. McCarthy even came in to throw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Baldwin.

McNamara vs. McCarthy. I couldn’t help thinking of the Brady vs. Henson quarterback situation from 1999, when starter Tom Brady would play the first quarter, Drew Henson would play the second quarter, and Lloyd Carr would pick the hot hand to play the second half. It was a 13-10 ball game early in the second half when McCarthy entered the game to hand off the ball a couple times. Then on third down, an obvious passing situation, McNamara was called into the game. If you have a quarterback in the game whom you don’t trust to throw the ball on third down in a three-point game, then he shouldn’t be in the game in the first place. I’m not saying McCarthy should be on the sideline the entire game, but that substitution just didn’t make sense. Some tough decisions are going to have to be made in the future, so I’ll say something that stirred up a bunch of controversy a couple years ago: McNamara or McCarthy will likely not finish his career at Michigan. In the age of the transfer portal, McNamara can find a job where he’s The Guy, and so can McCarthy. But it’s nice to have two solid quarterbacks for now.

Villari vs. Bowman. Dan Villari is a runner – and not a dynamic one – and Alan Bowman threw an interception on an attempted slant throw as the first passing attempt of his Michigan career. I guess it’s nice that they each got a snap in a tough road environment (although the crowd was checked out by then), but neither one is ready for increased playing time. Michigan needs both of them at quarterback for now, but Villari looks like a probably position-switcher down the road. The off-season comparison to Taysom Hill was fun for a millisecond, but Villari’s no Taysom.

Daxton Hill questions. I thought it was interesting that Wisconsin seemed to be going after safety Daxton Hill in coverage. Personally, I know there has been talk that he’s Michigan’s best cover guy and will be a corner in the NFL, but he rarely makes plays on the ball in man coverage. It’s not like he gets beaten by 5 yards; he’s typically right there but he also gives up his share of plays. In this game it was a touchdown and a long completion to Chimere Dike. He did make an interception in zone coverage later, and that’s where I think he’s best long-term. He has great change-of-direction skills and explosiveness, so he can break on balls in a hurry. But sometimes he’s too aggressive in man coverage, lunges, and gets a little out of position. I think he’s almost better off playing soft man, waiting for his guy to make a move, and then breaking on the ball. But by golly, when he decides to go, he looks good, such as when he knocked Mertz out of the game.

The defense got after it. Aidan Hutchinson didn’t make a sack for the first time this year, but he put pressure on the quarterback and forced the quarterback to other guys – mainly David Ojabo, who had 2.5 sacks. Josh Ross was back to his starting role after getting injured last week, and Michigan’s defensive line overall played its best game of the season. I think Mazi Smith and Chris Hinton are finally rounding into form, too. Wisconsin’s is not a great offense, and they don’t stress a defense in a ton of different ways (one of things I mentioned liking about Rutgers). But they do present problems with gap integrity, and Michigan handled themselves well.

What does this mean for Michigan? Michigan might be good. Wisconsin might be bad (though their defense is still good). At 5-0 and 1-3, respectively, those might be these teams’ realities for this season. But it’s still Wisconsin. This is a team that Michigan hadn’t beaten in Madison since 2001, whether they’re ranked this season or not. I’ve seen social media complains that Michigan is not getting the same perception boost that Penn State got when they beat the Badgers, but that’s to be expected. Every perennially solid team is somehow expected to go 12-0 or or 11-1 or 10-2 to start the season, and the “upsets” are huge in week two or three. By the time week ten rolls around, there’s just not as much emotion attached to “upsetting” a 5-4 team or a 3-6 team. So yes, it’s a good win for Michigan and it should be celebrated. But at the same time, this is not the Wisconsin of yesteryear with a Watt brother rushing the passer, a first round pick at running back, and a couple first round offensive linemen.

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