Niyo: Michigan’s heavy burden has extra weight vs. Wisconsin

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Brandon Peters

Ann Arbor — They might not know all the numbers, but they know what they mean.

Or at least what everyone else has decided they mean. And while this Michigan team can’t speak for the ones that came before it, these Wolverines know they’ll keep hearing about it until they do. More specifically, until they go win a big game against a ranked opponent on the road, something this football program hasn’t done in more than a decade.

That’s something they’ll get a chance to do again Saturday in Madison when they face No. 5 Wisconsin (10-0) at Camp Randall Stadium.

By now, the players are aware of the statistic: Michigan hasn’t beaten an opponent ranked in the AP Top 25 on the road since September 2006, when the Wolverines traveled to South Bend and demolished then-No. 2 Notre Dame, 47-21.

That’s ancient history to the current roster: In 2006, quarterback Brandon Peters was an 8-year-old playing tackle football for the first time with his father, David, as his coach. Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, was busy coaching the University of San Diego to a second straight Pioneer League title.

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But it’s often a package deal in college sports: Along with the treasured past, you get the tortured contemporary, or vice versa.

That’s part of the reason why Harbaugh called Saturday’s game against the undefeated Badgers — with ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew in town to drum up the hype — an “opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to the national football audience.”

It’s also a chance to play the spoiler’s role, as Patrick Kugler, Michigan’s fifth-year senior center, pointed out this week.

“Yeah, it’s fun,” he said. “We’ve kind of taken the role as a villain a little bit. …

“And the next two games are two big ones: Wisconsin and Ohio State. If we can come out on top of both of those, the villain wins.”

Numbers don’t lie

First, though, they’ll have to win one in enemy territory, snapping a 15-game road losing streak against ranked teams. Only two of those losses have come on Harbaugh’s watch the last three years — last month’s 42-13 beatdown at then-No. 2 Penn State and the controversial 30-27 double-OT thriller at No. 2 Ohio State last season.

But that doesn’t make it any easier on Michigan’s fan base, which has seen Ohio State win 15 road games against ranked teams since the Wolverines last turned the feat. That includes six in a row dating back to 2011 and a loss to the Wolverines in Brady Hoke’s first season as head coach.

Michigan State has done it four times in the last three years, not that Michigan fans need any reminding. (Two of those wins came in Ann Arbor.) And among Big Ten teams, only Purdue has endured a drought as long as Michigan, and the Boilermakers’ streak actually is a month shorter.

More: UM mailbag: Running on Badgers; UM’s year in 2018

It’s more than the rank failures, though. Michigan hasn’t even won a game as an underdog — according to Vegas oddsmakers — since that triple-overtime win at Northwestern in November 2013, losing their last 11 such games, including four under Harbaugh.

All of which is to reiterate that point. If Michigan wants to get past all this, if it wants to get out from behind its own shadow, now would be a good time to do it.

Wisconsin is one of only three remaining undefeated teams from Power 5 conferences, and the Badgers are coming off a dominant performance last week at home against Iowa, limiting to the Hawkeyes to just 66 yards of total offense.

But they’re battling some key injuries — center Tyler Biadasz and safety D’Cota Dixon both are listed as questionable for Saturday — along with a perception that their perfect record is a bit deceiving. The Badgers’ schedule ranks 67th nationally, according to ESPN.

And while Wisconsin is a fairly experienced team, this is still uncharted territory, in some respects. The Badgers are 10-0 for the first time in school history, and with the Big Ten West title effectively locked up weeks ago, the talk of a conference championship and a possible playoff berth has steadily ramped up.

“But when you’re in it, it’s really easy just to focus on the day, and the week,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “Each guy is probably different.

“But I think they’ve been handling it well.”

Opportunity knocks

Indeed, how well the Wolverines handle this probably is the bigger factor Saturday. This will be Peters’ first start in a truly hostile environment. And while the resurgent running game is an encouraging sign for Michigan, it’ll likely need some big plays in the passing game — and the kind of pass protection we haven’t seen all season — to beat the nation’s top defense. That vaunted Michigan defense needs to have a far better showing than it had at Penn State as well.

But whatever the recipe, the Wolverines know it’s the final result that’ll stick with them.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t paying attention to it,” defensive end Rashan Gary said, when asked about the extra baggage the Wolverines are forced to carry with them on the road. “Of course, going into the game, I don’t know who’s mind that’s not on. … Because we’ve got an opportunity in front of us, and we don’t want to let it go.”