It’s time to take No. 13 Wisconsin seriously as a legitimate contender to win the Big Ten.
Following two dominant victories over subpar opponents to open the season, there was still room to be skeptical about the Badgers, who fell wildly short of their massive expectations in 2018. But after a thorough and dominant 35-14 victory over No. 11 Michigan, Wisconsin looks like it is back among the elite programs in the Big Ten.
Saturday’s game was quintessential Wisconsin football. The Badgers completely commanded the line of scrimmage, gashing the Michigan defense for 361 yards rushing yards while the UW defense limited Michigan to a just 289 yards of offense, a lot of which came with the game well in hand for the Badgers.
Wisconsin established itself from the get go, reeling off a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive — throwing the ball just once in the process — to open the game. And when Michigan fumbled in the red zone on the ensuing drive, that would pretty much set the tone of the afternoon for the Wolverines’ offense.
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy-contending running back, broke off a 72-yard touchdown run later in the first quarter to make it 14-0, and that was all the Badgers’ defense would need. The Michigan offense would not cross midfield until late in the third quarter — when Wisconsin held a 35-0 lead.
Taylor led the way for the Wisconsin offense, rushing for 203 yards and two scores on 23 carries despite missing most of the second quarter with cramps. Taylor’s consistent success on the ground allowed Jack Coan to comfortably stand in the pocket and complete 13 of his 16 passes for 128 yards.
His best throw of the game came on a fourth-and-3 play near midfield. Wisconsin had already successfully rushed for a first down earlier in the half. This time, Coan, off of play-action, dropped a dime down the sideline to Quintez Cephus for a 26-yard gain. Six plays later, the Badgers would convert on fourth down for the third time of the half. This time, Coan easily sneaked it in from a yard out on fourth-and-goal to give UW a 21-0 lead.
Before halftime, Coan would add a second rushing touchdown, this time from 25 yards out, to put a bow on a remarkable half of football for the Badgers. Michigan would break Wisconsin’s shutout streak in the third quarter, but it was too late to matter.
What does this mean for Wisconsin?
Entering 2018, some had Wisconsin as a College Football Playoff contender, but an early loss to BYU put that dream out of commission. The Badgers would finish the year with five losses, with their passing attack being, by far, their biggest issue.
So far in 2019, those issues seem to be a thing of the past. Coan started games late last year after an injury to Alex Hornibrook (now at Florida State), but looked overwhelmed and threw for only 515 yards in five games. He passed that figure in just two games to begin 2019, and was just what he needed to be against the Wolverines.
Wisconsin’s running game was so dominant that he did not need to do much. And when passes were called, Coan was quick with his decisions and, most importantly, very accurate. If he can keep doing that, Wisconsin is going to be a team to be reckoned with moving forward.
But it’s too early to think of the Badgers as College Football Playoff contenders this time around. Best team in the Big Ten West? Certainly.
Unless Michigan State gets things turned around, the Badgers’ upcoming schedule — Northwestern, Kent State, MSU and Illinois — shouldn’t be all that difficult. But when you’ve still got a trip to Ohio State on your schedule, it’s hard to envision the Badgers ascending into the realm of the top teams in college football.
What does this mean for Michigan?
Where do we start with the Wolverines? Jim Harbaugh’s hire brought so much hope to Ann Arbor, but his teams come up short in big games time after time. And this is the second straight big game in which the Wolverines have gotten completely embarrassed. Last year it was a 62-39 defeat at Ohio State. This time, Harbaugh’s team — coming off a bye week! — was totally outclassed in every phase of the game. And it really might be time to wonder what the direction is for the program under Harbaugh’s watch.
With Urban Meyer out of the picture at OSU and Harbaugh bringing in Josh Gattis to run a new-look, up-tempo offense, this was supposed to be the year for the Wolverines to ascend to the top of the Big Ten East. But that looks like a pipe dream now. And it’s more than just the scheme offensively for the Wolverines.
Beyond another week of Patterson’s ineffectiveness, the offensive line was the most alarming aspect of Saturday’s performance — even more than the four turnovers. No matter who was playing QB — Patterson or Dylan McCaffrey, who at one point replaced Patterson until he was injured — the line didn’t give them much of a chance. The running game was worse. Michigan mustered only 30 yards on 19 carries.
The Wolverines have a lot of issues to address if things are going to get turned around.
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