Nation's top defenses clash in Michigan-Wisconsin battle

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan's defense is ninth nationally against the run, holding opponents to 110.3 yards a game

Ann Arbor — Wisconsin is unbeaten and ranked No. 5 nationally, while Michigan has two losses and is No. 19. Not exactly twins, but there are similarities.

The Badgers have the nation’s top-rated defense, while the Wolverines are No. 3. Both have a run-heavy approach on offense. They’ll put it all on display at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday when the teams meet there for the first time since 2009.

“Both teams really run the football and play physical defense,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said this week. “Tough schemes and good players. A lot of similarities. They make it tough. They get off of blocks. They pursue and run to the football. Both defenses are well-manned and well-coordinated.”

Harbaugh is impressed with Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook, although he has 11 interceptions to nine touchdowns in Big Ten play. He had three interceptions in a 38-14 win over Iowa last week, and the Hawkeyes’ points came off two interceptions returned for touchdowns.

“I’ve always liked him,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a cool customer. Big stage is never an issue for him from the moment he played his first game. He’s got great demeanor. Very poised. Very good thrower and slippery in the pocket.”

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But the Badgers are without leading receiver Quintez Cephus, out for the season with a leg injury. He had 501 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season.

Wisconsin’s run-heavy offense is really a Jonathan Taylor-heavy run offense. The freshman has rushed for 1,525 yards (7.0 per carry) and scored 12 touchdowns. He hasn’t been flawless, however, and also has fumbled four times. Harbaugh said Taylor is as good a back as Michigan has faced this season and appreciates how he can churn yards after initial contact.

“He’s a good back,” safety Josh Metellus said. “Keeps his feet running on contact. Finds the hole and hits it full speed. As a defense, the challenge he brings, everybody has to run to the ball and finish tackles. Nobody can have loafs on the field. Everybody has to get to the ball and make sure we bring him down.”

Michigan linebacker Devin Bush Jr. relishes the matchup with Taylor because it will give him “another reason to showcase what I got.” Bush leads the team with 82 tackles and has five sacks and nine tackles for loss.

Bush also described Taylor as a solid all-around back.

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“On film he shows good balance,” Bush said. “He has that speed to get away if he can. He’s a real patient runner. He’s a guy you got to put a body on to get him on the ground.”

The Wolverines are ranked ninth nationally against the run, holding teams to 110.3 yards rushing a game. Wisconsin is No. 1, holding teams to 81.5 yards.

“I always love a run (offense) because we pride ourselves on stopping the run,” defensive end Rashan Gary said. “That’s a big thing for us.”

Clearly, the Badgers will be a challenge. Michigan has allowed only Penn State to rush for more than 200 yards when the Nittany Lions gained 224 yards and scored five rushing touchdowns in the blowout win.

“It’s a big task for our defense,” Harbaugh said. “They have a very good, high-precision running game and a very good passing attack. Very good quarterback. Tremendous offensive line and core of receivers and tight ends that are very good. Very good personnel. They have really good schemes. They execute them very well.”

While the Badgers emphasize the run, Michigan’s defensive backs will have to stay zoned in.

Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor is averaging 7.0 yards a carry (219 carries for 1,525 yards).

“We can’t afford to fall asleep on the back end,” cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich said. “And he’s got a hell of an arm. Now he’s a little bit of a disadvantage because two of his receivers, I guess the best one is out, but the guys that are stepping in have done a pretty good job and he’s got the tight end that he throws to all the time. A really good tight end who’s back from last year, so you’ve got some weapons over there, and he’s got a hell of an arm, too.

“We can’t just fall asleep on the run game, because they’ll pound it, pound it, pound it and then all of a sudden, they’re play action or rolling out naked, so you’ve got to be ready for that.”

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said this week he knows how good Michigan’s defense is.

“It’s a very, very impressive, very talented, well-coordinated defense, and it’s going to take everyone, and that’s why it’s not Jonathan versus that, it’s team offense versus team defense,” he said. “For any play to be successful against good opponents, you’ve got to execute and everyone’s got to do his part.”

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This will be Michigan redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters’ third straight start and second on the road, although Camp Randall is way rowdier and intimidating than Maryland last week. Leading rusher Karan Higdon is expected to be back after missing the second half of the Maryland game with what appeared to be an ankle injury.

Michigan’s offensive line has improved the last three games against non-contending Big Ten teams, but this will be the best defensive line the Wolverines have faced.

More: Detroit News predictions: Michigan vs. Wisconsin

“They’re definitely a very big, physical front and that that 3-4 is unique especially for college, a true 3-4,” center Patrick Kugler said. “Bring us challenges, but we’re excited for it.”

Kugler specifically pointed out Olive Sagapolu, a 6-foot-2, 346-pound nose tackle.

“He’s a big boy,” Kugler said, laughing.

The Badgers are always noted for their big offensive lines and that’s something Kugler said he’s paying attention to, even though he won’t go up against them.

“Everyone always talks about Wisconsin’s O-line and how they’re always one of the best in the country and we’re trying to throw our name in there, too,” Kugler said. “I think we’re very capable. It’s going to be a great battle on Saturday. They’re a very physical front on defense as well. It’s going to be a great challenge for us. It’s more exciting than anything.”


Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.

TV/radio: Fox/950

Records: Michigan 8-2, 5-2 Big Ten; Wisconsin 10-0, 7-0

Line: Wisconsin by 7


Twitter: @chengelis