Five questions with Land of 10’s Wisconsin beat writer Jesse Temple.
When you think Wisconsin football, I speak for most people in saying running backs are generally the first thought. It rings true again this season, but the Badgers also have the nation's No. 1 defense. Is there an area Michigan can expose and get chunks of yards?
The strength of Wisconsin's defense is that it has great players at every position. Defensive end Alec James has 5.5 sacks, which is the most by a defensive end at Wisconsin since J.J. Watt in 2010. Wisconsin's leading tacklers are inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. But the outside linebacker trio of Leon Jacobs, Garret Dooley, and Andrew Van Ginkel has combined for 15.5 sacks. And the secondary really hasn't given up many big plays. Cornerback Nick Nelson leads the Big Ten with 18 pass breakups.
This strikes me as the type of game that won't feature a significant amount of chunk plays. It's going to be a methodical grind that will test both offenses.
Wisconsin offensive lineman Michael Deiter, a Genoa graduate, scores a touchdown against Illinois in October.
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Alex Hornibrook's 64 percent completion percentage is a great number. Not so great is the digit 12, as in he's thrown a dozen interceptions this season. If Michigan can contain Jonathan Taylor and put pressure on Hornibrook to complete passes, how daunting of a situation does that become for the sophomore quarterback?
The reason Hornibrook's completion percentage is so good is because he has a number of weapons at his disposal in the passing game. That hasn't always been the case at Wisconsin, but the Badgers have a strong group of wide receivers. Even though No. 1 receiver Quintez Cephus was lost for the season two weeks ago to a right leg injury, three players have emerged at the position as capable threats: A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis, and Kendric Pryor. All of them are underclassmen.
Pryor ran for a 25-yard touchdown on a reverse against Iowa. He also caught a stellar 12-yard touchdown pass in which he leaped over an Iowa defender. Taylor added a five-yard touchdown catch in the game. Davis is the big-play threat in the bunch and is averaging 20.3 yards per catch, which is the highest on the team.
Add in tight end Troy Fumagalli, who is one of the best at his position in the country, and tight end Zander Neuville and that's a lot of players Hornibrook can target. Michigan's defense will present a challenge that Wisconsin's offense has yet to see this season. The most important area of emphasis will be whether Hornibrook has enough time in the pocket to deliver passes. Like many quarterbacks who aren't particularly mobile, he struggles when he isn't able to set his feet.
The aforementioned Taylor, a true freshman, is one of the nation's top running backs and a darkhorse Heisman candidate. Is it possible to stymie his production when Taylor is running behind an offensive line of behemoths?
Taylor has been unbelievable this season, and it isn't because he is the product of a Wisconsin system that cranks out good running backs. He has the shiftiness to routinely make the first defender miss, the strength to knock would-be tacklers over and the speed to outrun them at the next level. Since he took over as a starter in Week 2 against Florida Atlantic, he has been held under 100 yards only twice — and one of those games was due to a leg injury suffered in the first half against Illinois.
Having an offensive line like the one Wisconsin has obviously helps Taylor. The line is able to consistently create holes for Taylor. But Taylor is special because of what he does once those holes are created. He can turn a play that is blocked for five yards into a 10-yard gain. In fact, he has 49 runs this season of at least 10 yards, which is tied with Florida Atlantic's Devin Singletary for the most in the FBS.
Michigan obviously has the talent up front to make life difficult on Taylor. If there's one area he has struggled with, it's fumbling. Taylor has fumbled the ball six times and lost four of them. He fumbled twice last week against Iowa and lost one of them at midfield. By now, I'm sure the Wolverines have seen on tape how they can try to exploit what might be Taylor's only weakness as a freshman.
Michael Deiter is a local kid. He's blossomed into a great offensive lineman. How would you assess his importance to Wisconsin's offensive game plan and how vital is his evolution as a leader to the team's steadiness?
Deiter is the most valuable player on the offensive line because he can do it all. He played center and guard in his first two seasons and moved to left tackle this season to fill a massive void. Former Badgers left tackle Ryan Ramczyk was a first-round NFL draft choice of the New Orleans Saints in the spring.
The transition to tackle took time for Deiter. Early in fall camp, he struggled during 1-on-1 pass rushing drills against Wisconsin's talented outside linebackers. Deiter said part of that had to do with him learning to think like a tackle instead of a guard, but he also needed to gain confidence that he had the talent, physicality, and speed necessary to deal with edge rushers in the Big Ten.
Deiter has started the last 37 games on the offensive line for Wisconsin and has become the voice of the unit. But it will obviously take all five linemen on Saturday to generate the push necessary to do any damage against Michigan's defense.
How do you envision this game playing out?
I think this will be a good, old-fashioned Big Ten slugfest. Wisconsin and Michigan are the only two Big Ten defenses that rank in the top 10 nationally of all four major statistical categories (total defense, run defense, pass defense and scoring defense). Those qualities will likely be on display Saturday as well.
Wisconsin's defense has routinely bailed out the offense for turnovers, and this group appears to be playing on an entirely different level than what we've seen from some very good Badgers defenses in recent years. Iowa, which was a top-20 team, finished with 66 yards of total offense last week against Wisconsin. And Wisconsin's offense has shown an uncanny ability to score in bunches after its mistakes.
This Wisconsin team is 10-0 for the first time in school history, and there's something magical about the season the Badgers are putting together. For all those reasons, I'm picking Wisconsin at home to win 20-14.
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