Why Michigan-Wisconsin is Week 4’s biggest game and more

Updated: September 21, 2019

Sep 20, 2019

In terms of rankings, college football’s Week 4 headliner is Georgia-Notre Dame. That’s fine. It should be a hell of a spectacle. But to me, Michigan-Wisconsin is the biggest game of the week.

We have so many questions regarding both teams. Can Michigan snap out of its early offensive funk? Was Wisconsin’s early domination of lesser foes a sign of big things to come? Is Badgers QB Jack Coan really as good as he has looked so far? Is Michigan’s O-line really as bad? Can Jim Harbaugh finally win again as an underdog (he’s 0-6 at Michigan, and it has been a while since Stanford-USC in 2007)?

Even the weather is cooperating. Michigan-Wisconsin games should be chilly, dreary gray or both. And the forecast currently calls for rain. Perfect.

I love that this game pops up as early on the calendar as it does, and I love that the early Saturday slate is mostly clear. All eyes on Madison.

1. The year so far

Both the Badgers and Wolverines are coming off bye weeks and have therefore played only two games. But they’ve left us with both limited and lasting impressions.

If we ranked teams purely on how they’ve looked this season, ignoring any previous impressions or assumptions, Wisconsin would be the No. 1 team in the country right now. The Badgers humiliated USF and Central Michigan, outscoring them by 110 points and outgaining them by 819 yards. The next points they allow will be the first since the first quarter of last year’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl. They have been devastating, albeit against teams ranked 86th and 119th, respectively, in SP+.

Michigan, meanwhile, is 2-0, but the Wolverines are still threatening to steal the early-season Existential Crisis title from USC. They looked decent enough in a 40-21 win over Middle Tennessee but needed a missed field goal attempt at the end of regulation and an overtime turnover to survive Army. Harbaugh announced his intention to modernize his offense this offseason, bringing in offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, but results have been lacking so far.

It’s still early, though, and Michigan is still unbeaten. It’s not too late to find traction, but it might be if they don’t find it Saturday.

2. What’s Michigan doing differently?

Michigan finished 25th in offensive SP+ last season; that’s not exactly destitute. The Wolverines scored more than 30 points in nine of 13 games last season, including seven of nine conference games and three contests against teams that finished in the SP+ top 20.

The season was bookended with meek offensive performances, however: a 24-17 loss to Notre Dame (307 total yards, 4.5 per play) and a 41-15 blowout at the hands of Florida (326, 4.9). Harbaugh has brought Michigan back to the land of the near elite, at the least, but it seemed like predictability, along with the inability to make big plays against good defenses, was holding him back.

Through two games, the Harbaugh-Gattis marriage has indeed produced some changes in the Wolverines’ offense.

They’ve picked up the pace. Michigan currently ranks 28th in my adjusted pace rankings, which compares your tempo to what’s expected based on your run-pass ratios. The Wolverines are snapping the ball nearly one second faster than this expectation, a clear change after taking 3.2 seconds per play longer than normal last year (123rd).

They’re disguising their intentions better, at least when it comes to formations. Last year, Michigan lined up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) 313 times and threw 66% of the time from that set. Meanwhile, it lined up in either 12 (one RB, two TE), 21 (two RB, one TE), or 22 personnel (two RB, two TE) 511 times and ran the ball 68% of the time from that look.

It’s pretty easy to prepare for that. Sure, the Wolverines had enough talent to move the ball anyway, but you can see how that might be an issue against teams with similar talent.

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  • This year, Michigan has moved away from 21 and 22 personnel (i.e. the use of a fullback), sticking almost entirely to 11 and 12. And the Wolverines’ run-pass rates from both are near 50-50 (56% pass from 11 personnel, 52% run from 12).

    When they pass, they’re also more likely to use the entire field. Whereas last year’s passing game was defined primarily by outs, screens and go routes, Shea Patterson is throwing more intermediate routes this year — 20 passes per game between 11 and 20 yards downfield, compared with 16.2 in 2018. He’s also doing a little better within this range, averaging 8.4 yards per pass compared to last year’s 7.8. And that’s without last year’s leading receiver, Donovan Peoples-Jones, who hasn’t played yet this year because of injury.

    Of course, you can still pretty easily identify what Michigan wants to do. All you need to know is the down and distance.

    I define standard downs as first downs, second-and-7 or less, and third- or fourth-and-4 or less. Passing downs are everything else: second-and-8 or more, third- or fourth-and-5 or more. Obviously teams run the ball more on standard downs (58% of the time on average) than passing downs (34%), but the Wolverines are far more extreme than the national averages: They’re running 67% of the time on standard downs (24th most overall) and only 20% of the time on passing downs (14th least).

    Both Middle Tennessee and Army took full advantage of this tendency, blitzing and stunting with abandon. And Patterson was dealing with plenty of second- and third-and-longs because MTSU and Army also knew when the Wolverines wanted to run. Michigan ranks 91st in rushing success rate so far, and in his first game as feature back, blue-chip freshman Zach Charbonnet gained only 100 yards in 33 carries against Army. The return of star lineman Jon Runyan from injury will help, but those are some pretty dreary numbers.

    With a week off to reassess and self-scout, I’m guessing Michigan rights some of these extreme tendencies a bit, perhaps giving Patterson a few more first-down pass opportunities and giving Charbonnet some second-down carries, when maybe there aren’t eight Wisconsin defenders in the box. If the Wolverines don’t break tendency, the Badgers’ defense is going to tee off.

    3. Why has Wisconsin been so dominant?

    With Wisconsin taking a step back in 2018 and young teams like Nebraska and Minnesota looking primed for a jump, it was easy to assume this year’s Big Ten West race would be wide open. And maybe it still will be. But as things currently stand, Wisconsin enters conference play as the West favorite once again. Nebraska, Minnesota and Northwestern have all been underwhelming, and … again … Wisconsin 110, First Two Opponents 0.

    What has made the Badgers so impressive so far? Let’s start with the defense.

    Success rate is a football efficiency measure that determines each play a success or non-success based on whether it gains 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second or 100% on third or fourth down. It functions as an on-base percentage of sorts, and Wisconsin’s defense has been an efficiency machine thus far: first in success rate allowed, first against the run, second against the pass, first on standard downs, fifth on passing downs.

    Do South Florida and Central Michigan have good offenses? Not even close. But there’s predictive value in treating bad teams and units like truly horrible teams and units, and that’s what Wisconsin has done.