It had been a while since Michigan won a big road game. Even longer since it had won in Madison. This week didn’t seem like the likeliest time for those streaks to end.
Michigan jumped to a 4-0 record this season on the strength of its running game. Through four games, the Wolverines were among the nation’s leaders in rushing, averaging more than 290 yards per game. Yet, despite a dominant ground attack, the Wolverines had yet to prove that they could move the ball through the air. How hesitant was Michigan to air it out? The only teams to have passed fewer times than Michigan through four games were the three service academies.
This didn’t bode well playing Wisconsin. Wisconsin may have come into the game with a losing record, but the Badgers feature a strong defense that has excelled defending the run this season. Led by an exceptionally tough front seven, Wisconsin had given up just 69 rushing yards through four games. That’s not an average of 69 yards per game, but a total of 69 yards through four games. To put Wisconsin’s run defense into perspective, despite pulling away late for a 41-13 victory, Notre Dame rushed for a grand total of three yards against the Badgers – on 32 carries.
How would Michigan, a team that relies so heavily on the run, a team that seems almost averse to passing, deal with a defense that is so efficient at stopping the run? Better than you might think, it turns out.
Michigan didn’t completely abandon the run against the Badgers. Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins led the Wolverines to a hard fought 112 yards on 44 carries. But Michigan showed better offensive balance than it has all season, by countering those 44 runs with 30 passes.
And credit head coach Jim Harbaugh and Michigan for being persistent, because Michigan’s passing game didn’t come quickly. Quarterback Cade McNamara wasn’t quite in sync with his receivers early. In the game’s first few series, McNamara’s passes were all-too-often slightly off-target or slightly-too-late, in both cases resulting in missed receivers and missed opportunities. But Harbaugh and the Wolverines stuck with it and McNamara eventually started connecting, turning the corner on a 34-touchdown pass to Cornelius Johnson late in the first quarter.
That touchdown pass gave Michigan a boost of confidence and a 7-0 lead, but it didn’t break the Badgers. After a pair of Jake Moody field goals extended Michigan’s lead to 13-3 late in the first half, Wisconsin corralled a Michigan squib kick, and after doing virtually nothing on offense all half, adroitly executed a three-play, 63-yard touchdown drive to close the half. The touchdown cut Michigan’s lead to 13-10, and with momentum and a suddenly revitalized home crowd on Wisconsin’s side, it was suddenly anybody’s game.
Michigan didn’t wilt, however. Sticking to the script and continuing to mix it up offensively, The Wolverines eventually pulled away with a 38-17 victory, in what was something of a coming out party for the Wolverine offense.
Michigan’s passing attack did what it had to do, not just complement Michigan’s running game, but leading the way. And tasked with directing the offense, McNamara was both effective and efficient, completing 17 of 28 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns – both to Johnson. But McNamara wasn’t the only quarterback that got into the action. Back-up JJ McCarthy rushed for one touchdown and passed for another – a 56-yard strike to Daylan Baldwin.
Wisconsin’s comeback chances were dealt a blow when quarterback Graham Mertz was forced to leave in the second half with an apparent rib injury, but it’s unlikely the outcome would have been much different had Mertz remained in the game. That’s because Michigan’s defense was dominant throughout, holding the Badgers to just 210 yards on the day and three of 14 on third down. Other than Wisconsin’s touchdown to end the first half, the Badgers never seriously challenged.
With so much talk about Michigan’s offense this season, its defense has been flying somewhat under the radar. But under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, Michigan’s defense has been more than solid, and through five games, ranks among the top 15 defenses in the nation.
Macdonald’s scheme has succeeded in part because it’s put Michigan’s best players in positions in which they can make plays. Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojobo, Josh Ross and Daxton Hill have all thrived in Macdonald’s system and all played exceptionally well Saturday. But Macdonald has also shown the ability to present different looks and formations, depending on opponent or situation. Something that seems fairly rudimentary, but nonetheless reflects a big change from recent Wolverines defenses, and has played a large part in Michigan’s success thus far.
Michigan will celebrate this victory, but it can’t afford to rest on its laurels, because the Wolverines have another difficult road date this weekend when they travel to Lincoln, a place they haven’t won in … well, ever (although in fairness, Michigan has only played in Lincoln twice, and one of those games was more than 100 years ago).
It will be no easy task for Michigan to keep its undefeated season going, because despite a less-than-eye-catching .500 record, Nebraska has been playing well. The Huskers have a strong defense that’s hard to run on (sound familiar?) and a dynamic quarterback in Adrian Martinez who’s playing as well as he has since his breakout freshman season. Macdonald and his defense will have its work cut out for it.
But that’s for next week. For now, Michigan celebrates, and maybe even jumps around a bit, after hard-fought win and the continuation of its resurgent season.