Preview: Wisconsin 2017

Submitted by Brian on November 17th, 2017 at 2:45 PM


WHAT Michigan (8-2) vs
Wisconsin (10-0)
WHERE Camp Randall,
Madison, WI
WHEN Noon Eastern
November 18th, 2017
THE LINE Vegas: M +7.5
S&P+: M +9.9
TICKETS can be had
WEATHER high 30s, cloudy, slight chance of rain
15 mph wind


Hey, look: Wisconsin. Over there, being Wisconsin. Running the ball a lot. Getting by with a noodle-armed quarterback. Winning the Big Ten West with two games to spare. Having an infinite conveyor belt of linebackers unearthed from a pit in Green Bay, like Uruk-Hai. Some cornerback who wears a hoodie and only gets called for half of the interferences he interferes on.

It's Wisconsin. It has always been Wisconsin. It is currently Wisconsin. It will continue being Wisconsin until the sun expands. The end.

Run Offense vs Wisconsin


If Olive Sagapolu isn't nicknamed "Savage Garden" i don't even know man

Wisconsin sports S&P+'s #1 defense and #25 rush defense, fresh off a thunder-mugging of Iowa that broke the system. S&P+ cannot calculate a percentile performance for 66 yards in a football game:


So that seems bad. It is worth noting that this deep into the season one excellent defense won't distort your rushing numbers that much, and Wisconsin has played a bunch of jabronis. They've played on top-20 rush offense, and that's FAU. Purdue is the only team ranked higher than 36th on the schedule so far. Both of those teams are spread to run outfits that collectively averaged about 4 yards a carry—not great, not horrible.

Michigan enters with the #12 rush offense and an approach that Wisconsin has literally not seen all year except every day in practice. (Iowa is superficially a "pro-style" offense but an almost exclusively zone one.) Nothing Michigan does will catch the Wisconsin defense off guard, but it is possible they're not quite as good when their planetoid nose tackle is removed from the equation by a downblock two gaps away from the point of attack.

That planetoid is Olive Sagapolu, a 350-pound Samoan dude who specializes in being in a place and not leaving that place no matter how many offensive linemen and/or dump trucks are tasked with dislodging him. He does little in the box score—just 10.5 tackles on the year, or a game and a half for Mo Hurst—but fulfills his primary duty by keeping the interior linebackers clean. Rarely in the history of S&P+ stats has a team so embodied the idea of a two-gap 3-4. The Wisconsin DL is 119th in "havoc rate". Their linebackers and DBs are 1st.

So. Sagapolu allows ILBs TJ Edwards and Ryan Connelly to crunch interior runs. This usually happens at or near the line of scrimmage. The S&P+ stat picture* is one of a defense that's just okay at giving up the first few yards but is excellent at preventing chunk plays. Wisconsin will bleed you down the field a bit and get you into a passing down, where you're going to get clunked.

One potential issue for Wisconsin is the status of strong safety D'Cota Dixon, who missed the Iowa game and is listed as questionable on Wisconsin's weekly injury report. (Yes, Wisconsin has a weekly injury report. Harbaugh involuntarily shuddered just now and doesn't know why.) He was replaced by a walk-on, which sounds bad until you remember Wisconsin's history with walk-on safeties. Still, Dixon is a safety blanket for the front seven and his potential absence could loom large if Higdon or Evans busts into the open field.

Michigan should be able to move the ball some here. The current state of their rushing offense is probably understated by their #12 ranking; they've improved radically since early in the season. Harbaugh's shown almost nothing new on the ground since the split flow counter made its debut against Indiana and should have some tweaks in store that break tendencies and get guys in bad run fits. It'll be up to the running backs to see how big those plays actually get.

*[If you want the details: Wisconsin is 43rd—meh—in line yards allowed and in the 80s at stuffing short yardage and getting plays of 0 or fewer yards. They are outstanding at preventing big plays.]

KEY MATCHUP: HARBAUFFENSE vs ILB PLAY READING. Both ILBs are excellent at getting to where they need to be, and if Michigan just runs power they're capable of scraping over even a fairly bad blowout of a 3-4 DE. If Michigan can get those guys reading the wrong thing, or just get them hesitant, there will be gaps to the safeties.


Pass Offense vs Wisconsin



This should be a disaster. Wisconsin's pass defense is 6th, and their pass rush is 5th. Michigan's pass protection is... 121st. I've been muttering about S&P+'s failure to comprehend just how dire the quarterback situation is in the Big Ten this year, but Michigan's passing game can be posited as a counterpoint only under the influence of strong hallucinogens.

Worse for Michigan and their diverse and sundry ways to fail to pick up a blitz is the sheer diversity of attackers Wisconsin will present. Seth:

Pressure: GERG or Greg? Dr. Blitz. I tracked their heat while doing the Maryland offense against them last week and the average first down attack was 4.49. Third down would look higher but they do sometimes leave just three.

As the platonic ideal of a college 3-4 Wisconsin’s three down linemen are not expected to bust through, though Iowa’s terrible OL managed to let them do so plenty. They’re built to disguise and threaten pressure from everywhere, with super-quick linebackers screaming in from anywhere and ruining your protections.

Well. Ffffuuuu. A whopping 14 different Badgers have sacks on the season; four different OLBs have 3.5 or more, and Wisconsin will load the field with those guys on passing downs, lifting some of their burly DL. Those guys will come from everywhere and Michigan will fail to pick them up. This is chiseled in stone at this point in the season.

I suspect that Wisconsin's corners aren't all that when exposed to real competition, but again it doesn't seem like Michigan qualifies. I have a deep-seated loathing for Wisconsin's top cornerback Nick Nelson, who is the kind of artless hack who interferes constantly and hopes the refs only call him for it three times in a game. Also he wears a hoodie. His attempts to shut down Simmie Cobbs were comical at best until he'd picked up his three PI flags and the refs stopped calling it.

That video excluded another obvious PI call on a hitch on third down; it went uncalled. That sent Tom Allen into an entirely justifiable sideline blood rage.

This is a Big Ten road game and DPJ is in the midst of a "welcome to college, rookie" hazing year, so expect Nelson to poleaxe DPJ repeatedly without a call. Some of these will be "PBUs," adding to Nelson's 18 on the year. Such is life. It'll be fun to see which NFL team has the worst CB scouting if he enters the draft.

The other returning starter, Derrick Tindal, is just a guy. In this game he is mostly going to be a guy not covering the one WR Michigan puts on the field.

Hopes here should be minimal. Wisconsin's ILBs are extraordinarily well-drilled in zones across the middle of the field. Michigan can't pass protect to save their lives, and Michigan is going to get boned on several PI calls. Maybe a max pro play action on an early down can pop DPJ open for a chunk; maybe Michigan has some tricks in the passing game they've accumulated over the past three weeks of walkovers. Maybe Grant Perry can do some work against slot corners if Michigan ends up pushed out of their ground-and-pound attack. Maybe.

What's certain is a rain of sacks.

KEY MATCHUP: DONOVAN PEOPLES-JONES HAND-WAVINGLY WIDE OPEN DEEP vs POOR DAMN DPJ. It will happen that a Wisconsin safety gets too nosy on first down and Michigan pops DPJ open for a post route with no safety help, and maybe this time someone will throw the ball to him.

Run Defense vs Wisconsin


good, but how good?

Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor was committed to Rutgers for most of last year's cycle, and there's a hell of a counterfactual for you. At Wisconsin, Taylor has 1500 yards at 7 yards an attempt. At Rutgers he would have... not that. Taylor appears to be an actual difference maker, as well. Three other Wisconsin tailbacks have 192 carries between them and are averaging just 4.6 YPC. Some of those are undoubtedly late-game carries behind the second-team OL, but Bradrick Shaw is the #2 guy and has most of his work backing up Taylor; he's averaging just 3.9 yards a pop.

Also arguing in this same vein: Wisconsin's run game ranking is just 21st despite Taylor's season; since S&P+ drops garbage time carries that implies enough of the rest of the Wisconsin run game is dragging Taylor's output down during the competitive portions of contests. Seth scouted Taylor... somewhat hyperbolically:

How does a true freshman get a shield? If you know your Wisconsin running back history, I think Jonathan Taylor runs a lot like Anthony Davis, but will also charge through the line with the violence of Ron Dayne. He runs behind his pads like Terrell Fletcher, downshifts with the patience of P.J. Hill, has the one-cut vision of Corey Clement, keeps his balance like John Clay, can juke in a phonebooth like Michael Bennett, always falls forward like James White, stiffarms fools like Montee Ball, and has the instincts and athleticism to create his own gap, jet through it, and depants a safety that should immediately bring to mind one Melvin Gordon.

We'll see if he's Melvin Gordon or Ron Dayne over the next few years. The jury is still out. Some of it will come in this weekend.

Wisconsin's offensive line has an injury issue at center, where Tyler Biadasz is questionable. He was replaced by a very giant walk-on, Jason Erdmann, against Iowa and the downgrade was notable. Mo Hurst versus that guy would be a good matchup for Michigan. As for the rest of the Wisconsin OL:

If Biadasz can’t go, they could shift LT Michael Deiter back to center—Deiter was a star interior lineman the last couple of years but at tackle he’s Mason Cole minus a crucial notch of pass protection. The problem is like every other team in this conference they don’t have any viable OTs—RT David Edwards is Juwann Bushell-Beatty except not as consistent as a down-blocker—I ticked him for seven negative events in 20 pass plays versus Maryland’s crappy pass rush; very good Iowa DE Anthony Nelson turned Edwards-Beatty into silly-putty.

The guards are also 6’6” and Ben Bradenesque—RG Beau Benzschawel murders tackles and linebackers on downblocks and zone plays, and makes heady decisions when pulling. LG Jon Dietzen is a line-caver. The whole line is top-heavy and can be burled backwards.

Wisconsin will probably motion around in an effort to get Winovich on the strong side of a bunch of power plays. He's in for a challenge unlike any he's seen so far this year. He looks up for it, most of the time. Last week maybe not so much; if there's a weakness Maryland managed to expose is the gap between Winovich and Solomon/Mone/Furbush. Michigan probably knows this and will try to compensate, which opens up other stuff, and so forth and so on. Michigan should get enough negative plays to stall most drives.

KEY MATCHUP: HURST and OTHER DT vs DOUBLE TEAMS. Hurst is excellent but getting hammered on double teams is an occasional issue. The other guy... has been up and down, whether it's been Mone or Solomon. Michigan is going to defend a ton of power and getting a good start on the first line of defense will be crucial as M tries to shut Taylor down.

Pass Defense vs Wisconsin


interception machine

This is too is a funhouse mirror version of a Michigan unit. Wisconsin is extraordinarily run biased, as you'd expect, running almost 80% of the time on standard downs. The results when this ground-based unit take to the air... uh, make absolutely no sense? Wisconsin is awesome on passing downs? And give up a ton of sacks? And throw a bunch of picks? And still come out pretty well overall? What?

It's true: Wisconsin has major pass protection issues despite the surprise nature of their attempts. They're currently 95th in sack rate allowed. This is bad. They are terrific on passing downs, converting almost 40% of the time—sixth nationally. Alex Hornibrook has 12 interceptions on just 206 throws. That 5.8% INT rate is much worse than John O'Korn's 4.3% and amongst the worst nationally. I dunno man. Bizarre.

Seth tries to explain:

The Hornibrook experience is particularly difficult to chart. Balls that would be filed “DO” (on the run, facing pressure, 13 yards downfield to a receiver with a defender draped all over him) might float so long that the cornerback has a chance to intercept, then like a puppy unused to frisbees the CB mistimes his jump and first down plus a chunk. There were a bunch of throws I filed “CA” that probably could have been MA but Fumagalli adjusts so well to balls a little behind his stride that putting it where he can win a box-out is a better idea than having the ball in the air longer.

Hornibrook is the same pop-gun arm he was last year but with an additional year of experience he's been able to make it work better.

He'll have to work a little harder this weekend. Wisconsin lost Jazz Peavy early in the season and recently added leading receiver Quintez Cephus to the injury list. Cephus was wildly efficient, with a catch rate near 80% and 17 YPC on about 20% of Wisconsin's targets. His replacements are small underclassmen. Sophomore AJ Taylor has 15 catches; freshmen Danny Davis and Kendrick Pryor have 19 between them. Davis had mostly gotten garbage time early but did have 4 catches for 78 yards in Cephus's stead last week. These gents top out at six feet talk and should be at a disadvantage against Michigan's man coverage, except when OPI happens, which it will constantly.

The main remaining threat is TE Troy Fumagalli, who gets just over a quarter of Hornibrook's targets and remains the kind of intermediate threat that NFL teams covert. He's been less successful this year as teams move resources towards him, losing about ten points from both his catch rate and success rate. His 8.3 yards per target is still fine, but not explosive.

Hornibrook isn't going to get many attempts in this game, and a huge swing in the outcome is whether or not Michigan can force some turnovers on those attempts, or at least get some field position wins by sacking him. Wisconsin's outside WRs will struggle to contribute; that passing down success should evaporate save various follies by referees.

KEY MATCHUP: HORNIBROOK vs SELF, ALSO PASS RUSH. How many times will he throw into coverage?

Special Teams

This should be pretty boring unless Quinn Nordin misses a field goal or there's a punt muff. Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone is 10/12 on the year on mostly short stuff. Punter Anthony Lotti is a bit of a dinker, averaging 40 yards a pop. Returns have been infrequent and unproductive for opponents.

Nelson returns punts. He's done little so far, averaging 6 yards a pop on 18 attempts. He's muffed twice. AJ Taylor returns kicks and also has zero notable returns and two fumbles to his name.



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Cheap Thrills

Worry if...

    • Refs are "letting them play."
    • Michigan's ground game sputters against a fierce run defense.
    • There's a game winning field goal getting lined up from 38.

    Cackle with knowing glee if...

    • The open DPJ deep shot(s) are completed.
    • It turns out Wisconsin's offensive line ain't played nobody.
    • Hornibrook continues his interception festival.

    Fear/Paranoia Level: 6 (Baseline 5; +1 for Relying On Big Ten Refs To Call PI And OPI Right, +1 for Peters Under Siege, +1 for Also Dude Is Just Going To Get Rattled During First Actual Road Game, –1 for Ain't Played Nobody, –1 for More INTs Than O'Korn, –1 for Center Is The Worst Spot To Have An Injury, +1 for An Actual Run Defense Is New For Michigan).

    Desperate need to win level: 7 (Baseline 5; +1 for Winning Is Good, +1 for Annoying Streak About Beating Ranked Opponents On The Road, +1 for This Would Give Michigan A Thing They Did This Year That's Not Beat A Terrible Team, +1 for Outside Shot At Division Title Go Rutgers!, –1 for I Mean We Should Not Win This Game, –1 for Acceptance Of Rebuilding Game.)

    Loss will cause me to... build a bomb shelter in a week.

    Win will cause me to... cackle wildly as I consume several ounces of cheese carefully sculpted into terrified-looking badgers.

    The strictures and conventions of sportswriting compel me to predict:

    Do you like football that looks like it is being broadcast on a cathode ray tube? Have I got a treat for you! This will be a series of thuds that don't go much of anywhere. The team that manages to break a big play in the passing game—on offense or defense—will be at an advantage.

    Wisconsin is likely to be that team because their pass protection is only bad instead of cataclysmic, but Hornibrook's interception festival gives Michigan its shot. Without a big earth-moving play in Michigan's favor the scales will slowly tilt in Wisconsin's favor as their passing game is spare and efficient despite protection issues instead of completely hamstrung by them.

    Finally, three opportunities for me to look stupid Sunday:

    • Michigan outrushes Wisconsin... sacks excluded.
    • Peters is sacked four times on 20 attempts.
    • Wisconsin, 18-15


    Everyone Murders

    November 17th, 2017 at 2:55 PM ^

    I'm amazed that a kid could play with a hoodie - both for his safety and for the safety of those playing with him.  In soccer we won't even let someone play with pockets, lest another player get his fingers caught in there and broken.

    A hoodie is like an invitation to go somewhere between a horse collar and full Elizabeth Lambert.

    Never go full Elizabeth Lambert.

    Everyone Murders

    November 17th, 2017 at 5:04 PM ^

    I mean I do kind of look like I couldn't get an SEC offer and probably don't look tough enough to play these days.  But it's kind of mean for you to say it. 

    Plus Kentucky or Vandy might be able to put me out there for special teams or some shit, except I graduated years ago and am out of eligibility.

    tl;dr?  You're mean.


    November 17th, 2017 at 4:19 PM ^

    Odd story...


    I was once running up my stairs with soccer shorts on, and they had pockets. My middle finger got caught in a pocket and it twisted. I still can't, to this day, bend my finger all the way in, or stretch it all the way out.


    It's been 3 years.

    Everyone Murders

    November 17th, 2017 at 5:07 PM ^

    I honestly have not heard of soccer shorts with pockets (I've had kids practice with athletic shorts w/ pockets when they are weejuns, but when they get to be over 10 or so they need to go pocketless). 

    More importantly, how do you even drive without the ability to stretch your middle finger all the way out?


    November 17th, 2017 at 5:13 PM ^

    when I saw Peters wearing a gold chain in the Minnesota game.  Very clearly visible on his neck when he put his head forward.

    Surprised that's allowed, because like you mention, in any level of soccer I've played or reffed it's a big no-no, understandably.  And in football, guys are actively grasping at parts of your body/uniform.

    I'm sure a chain would snap before any harm could be done but I wouldn't want to take any chances with metal slicing into my neck.

    Apparently fewer restrictions on accessorizing in football. 

    MMB 82

    November 17th, 2017 at 7:50 PM ^

    but the advantages of the Kemper are that for the $1800, you can play any tube amp (literally thousands) you can possibly desire, have access to nearly every effect in almost any combination possible (including mulitple wahs, a looper, etc.), and get great tone at bedroom or even headphone volumes. The Kemper profiles are accurate enough that you can identify which particular tube amp you might want to actually try out for real. My wife works at home, so I bought a Kemper Rack thru Sweetwater (30 day trial, free return). I liked it so much, I ended up selling off my amp (Mesa Boogie) and all of my pedals except for the Digitech Mosaic.


    November 17th, 2017 at 2:58 PM ^

    As I was scrolling through the last section, I tried to guess Brian's score prediction.  6-4, 5-2, 3-2.. I finally decided 8-5 sounded right.  18-15?!  Are we just to assume that 11 field goal drives will start on the opposition's 20? :)


    November 17th, 2017 at 3:03 PM ^

    Our offense is going to struggle to run the ball. Maybe Hornibrook gifts us a few INTs, but this feels like a rude awakening upcoming which shows us the run game is only 'good', the pass pro is truly awful, and Brandon Peters is very much a freshman. I think we gotta hope Hornibrook gives us a few turnovers

    I'm going Wisconsin 19-6


    November 17th, 2017 at 6:01 PM ^

    The refs won't "cheat" per se, but there are a lot of judgment calls in a game. 

    Big Ten refs work for the Big Ten office.

    None of these refs are going to be "that guy" that cost the Big Ten its only shot at a Playoff spot by making a judgement call against Wisconsin.

    They would not even do it last year in the Michigan-Ohio State game where the Big Ten still had an outside shot at the Playoff even if Ohio State were to lose.

    The Big Ten has no shot at it if Wisconsin loses.  No ref is going to want to be the guy to knock them out of it on a judgement call.  Michigan will not get any 50/50 calls, nor will they even get any 60/40 calls.

    Get used to it now, that's just the way it's going to be.




    November 18th, 2017 at 3:38 AM ^

    If michigan beat osu and won the Big they would be a one lose team anf would get in. If they lost to wisconsin, wisconson would likely have gotten in. The big was not missing the playoffs last year. The refs were just osu fans and fucked michigan because of that.