Despite a 3-0 start to the season, Michigan still had plenty to prove entering conference play. Even after recording 37 and 17 point victories over Central Florida and Colorado respectively, the Wolverines had yet to prove they were capable of playing with the conference's best, let alone the nation's. Forget for a moment that the same could be said of most teams through three games, the knock on Michigan was that the Wolverines had yet to show the ability to impose their will in the run game. Gaudy point totals aside, the ability to pound the ball remained Michigan's biggest concern and its most oft-asked question through three weeks.
The Big Ten opener against Penn State was thought to at least begin to answer that question. I wrote last week that, "Penn State and Wisconsin ... may not be in same class as Michigan State and Ohio State, but they will nonetheless present somewhat of a litmus test for Michigan," particularly with respect to Michigan's running game. Well, in a sport in which impressions seem to change weekly, Wisconsin showed that it's clearly in Michigan State's class (in fact, you'd be hard pressed not to argue the opposite after last week's 30-6 drubbing of the Spartans in East Lansing) and Penn State proved to be no test at all for Michigan. In fact, after watching Colorado defeat Oregon behind back-up quarterback Steven Montez, it would be hard to argue that Colorado hasn't been Michigan's toughest test to date. But it's what happened in East Lansing and not Eugene that changed the narrative of the Wolverines' season.
Coming into the season, the thought was that with its back-loaded schedule, Michigan wouldn't face its first serious test until a late-October trip to East Lansing. This isn't to say that Michigan State still won't be one of Michigan's toughest games this season, but rather that the Wolverines won't have to wait until the final weekend in October for its first test. That takes place this Saturday in the form of the Badgers, who come to Ann Arbor looking to knock off a top ten team for the third time this season.
Watching Wisconsin play, the first thing you notice, in addition to the Badgers' typically strong performance in the trenches, is its stable of linebackers. With apologies to Ohio State and Michigan State, it's hard to imagine a better linebacking corps in the Big Ten than the Badgers' quartet of Vince Biegel, Jack Cichy, TJ Edwards and TJ Watt. It's an impressive, athletic bunch that always seems to be in the center of the action. Strong linebacker play was not something that Michigan had to deal with against Penn State, as a unit that was already decimated by injuries was further reduced after a botched targeting call on Brandon Smith and an injury to Jan Johnson left the Nittany Lions searching for warm bodies to man the middle. Michigan played well, perhaps its best game of the year, but there's a reason why the Wolverines rushed for over 300 yards at nearly seven yards a clip. After Michigan's backs, five of which scored touchdowns on the day, got past the line of scrimmage, there was little to slow them down. That won't be the case this weekend.
It's not that the Wolverines have to run to win. Jim Harbaugh has proven capable of finding other ways to move the ball. In fact, that kind of offensive diversity is one of this team's strengths. And while the Wolverines are still breaking in a first-year starting quarterback, they're blessed with one of the best receiving corps in the nation, headed by All-Conference caliber performers Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. But passing successes aside, this team has designs on owning the line of scrimmage, something it hasn't yet shown it can do.
Critics were somewhat quieted by Michigan's 326 yard rushing performance against Penn State, but a strong ground game against Wisconsin would all but end any concerns about Michigan's ground attack. And in that sense, this week's battle in the trenches go a long way toward not only deciding the game, but defining both teams. Can Michigan rely on its running game? Or will it continue to gain yardage by any means necessary? I also wrote that, "the game within the game over the next two weeks will center on how successful Michigan is running the ball." The sentiment was correct, it was just the timing that was off.