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Thursday, September 21, 2006

This week we have two, count 'em, two excellent Badger bloggers who have consented to detail the various ways in which Michigan is going to flog Wisconsin this weekend: Bruce Ciskie (a fellow Fanhouse traveller) and Badger Tracker from the Badger Sports Blog.

So... Wisconsin was tied with San Diego State until late in the third quarter last week. Meanwhile, by that time Michigan had already BEATEN DOWN Notre Dame with authorita. As a result, we have a 14 point spread and 80% of the people on Badgermaniac predicting a loss. Does that seem excessively pessimistic to you?

BSB: You must've gotten there before these threads went up. Go in and instigate a little bit and see how quickly they move into "we're going to beat Michigan!" mode.

But yes, that is excessively pessimistic. This time last week, Michigan fans were sweating over having to face #2 Notre Dame in South Bend with the Irish coming off a complete demolition of Penn State, and everyone kept mentioning that the last time Michigan won its road opener was when Lloyd Carr was still on his MNC honeymoon. Then, BEAT DOWN.

We're in a similar position. Strong-looking opponent absolutely creams allegedly-strong-but-actually-weak opponent, a long streak of futility looms large (UM hadn't won in South Bend since 1994, UW hasn't won at the Big House since ... wait for it ... 1994), and a supposedly-middling Big Ten team has to go on the road to take on a hyped favorite.

So, that parallel should give Badger fans hope.

Bruce: I don't pay much attention to blogs and message boards. If I had done that, I would have thought that Jim Herrmann was a terrible defensive coordinator.

Wait. Bad example.

I think that I expect Badger fans to be excessively pessimistic heading into this game. They are a weak 3-0, and Michigan just killed Brady Quinn. That's a lot to swallow. I think 14 points is a bit high, because I don't honestly believe that Wisconsin can lose by that much unless they completely go into the tank. But I think it would be crazynuts to predict a Wisconsin victory with a straight face.

Wisconsin replaced everyone on offense save Stocco and the two tackles. Who do you think has adequately stepped into the void so far this season? Who is a major downgrade?

BSB: Obviously PJ Hill has been a pleasant surprise. A lot of people thought that Wisconsin's running game was going to take a year off after Brian Calhoun decided to chase the money [Well, who could pass up the opportunity to be a Detroit Lion? -ed], and this guy steps in and is leading the Big Ten in rushing. And of course that mean's that the new interior lineman have been able to provide sufficient push thus far as well as those returning tackles. Brent Rentmeester, the fullback, has done a great job on short notice after Chris Pressley's season-ending injury.

The wide receivers are extremely raw. I don't want to say they're bad since none of them had experience coming into this year, so let's just say that replacing Jonathon Orr and Brandon Williams would be tough for nearly any team.

Bruce: Adequately: The PJ Hill/Dywon Rowan/Lance Smith triumverate at running back. I'm concerned about these guys as pass-catchers, but I love how each of the three run the football. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in terms of their receiving ability, because I tend to believe that Wisconsin tried to get through these three games without showing much of that facet of the offense.

I'm not sold on the interior of the offensive line yet. Kraig Urbik has been okay at guard, but Marcus Coleman and Andy Kemp have been inconsistent thus far. I wouldn't call them "major downgrades", though.

Instead, I'll save "major downgrade" for the wide receiver position. Paul Hubbard is a helluvan athlete, but he doesn't have Brandon Williams' hands or route-running discipline. For Stocco to have the targets necessary for him to throw for nearly 3,000 yards again, he needs one of the true freshmen (Issac Anderson and Xavier Harris) to step up. Now.

I note that PJ Hill is fat, and that Michigan has had no problem dealing with fat running backs from Wisconsin in the past. Does he have enough bounce to get outside the tackles if the middle is jammed up? Or is he a guy who goes where he goes and if you're in the way you're flat?

BSB: If Hill gets to the outside, it's because Rentmeester has lead-blocked effectively. But this guy's a bruiser. Bret Bielema has said that if he gets even a shoulder on most defenders, they're going to get knocked out of his path.

Also, don't call him fat. Or he might eat you.

Bruce: Hill isn't nearly as fat as Ron Dayne, who is really the only fat Wisconsin running back in recent years unless you count guys like Cecil Martin or Matt Bernstein, who were primarily fullbacks. Hill's feet aren't as quick, but he probably has a bit more straight-line speed than Dayne, and I think his vision is pretty good. What sets Hill apart is how he seems to hunger for the chance to run guys over, rather than making them whiff on tackle attempts. He has had more than a few runs this year where he just lowered his shoulder and gained a few extra yards because of how hard he is to bring down.

Stocco had a terrible start against SDSU. Reasons? Probability he'll repeat that performance? Probability he'll be insanely good?

BSB: I don't know if this was really a reason, but it was freakin' windy in Madison on Saturday. Wind, as you know, causes footballs to move about and receivers to cry. More likely is what Stocco himself blames: his footwork and, maybe even worse, the fact that he was locking in on receivers. As Brady Powlus learned last weekend, this will not work against the Wolverines.

Bruce: On the television broadcast, analyst Randy Wright was surmising that Stocco may have been banged up a bit. There are a couple pieces of evidence that point to this conclusion. In the third quarter, he fumbled on a play where the middle of the SDSU defense parted like, well, the Notre Dame secondary. But instead of taking off, Stocco tried to retreat to buy himself more time. He ran into a charging defensive lineman, who promptly sacked him and forced a fumble. And it was probably in the second quarter that they showed Stocco throwing a pass and immediately flexing his right hand as if it was really bothering him.

That said, I'm not sure if Stocco is hurt, and I don't think it's been brought up at all yet this week. That tells me that if he is hurt, it's probably nothing terribly serious.

Either that, or it's really serious and they're not ready to tell us about it.

Michigan's defensive line is freakin' rad. The interior of the Badger line is mewling babes. Epic destruction on a scale unfit for small children and the elderly? Or frustrating inability to apply freakin' radness to Stocco's ribs?

BSB: That's a real tossup. Stocco was only sacked once against Western Illinois, but that number lies; he was running for his life all day against a I-AA opponent. Last week, a significantly better effort from the offensive line kept him on his feet most of the day. Of course, the Badgers haven't faced anything like the human locomotives that the Wolverines are going to bring. Look for them to remember their effort against San Diego State and play well until one breakdown occurs. At that point Michigan will sniff that weakness out and exploit it. And yes, Stocco will be thoroughly crushed at least once. With Woodley, Taylor, and Branch (and after last week, apparently Crable), this is inevitable.

Bruce: I hope the latter. I fear the former, and evidence points toward the former, especially when you consider how poorly Stocco was protected against the Directional Leathernecks.

The defense has been statistically good but Wisconsin fans were disappointed with the results from the first two games. What was the difference against San Diego State?

BSB: As a fanbase, I don't think we found ourselves too worked up about the defensive effort against Bowling Green. They had a mobile quarterback and we can never stop those (sound familiar?). And against Western Illinois, the numbers aren't all that bad; most teams would take three interceptions any day. However, the appalling statistic from that game was that the Leathernecks went 8-for-16 on third down conversions.

That was put to an abrupt end on Saturday when the Aztecs went 2-for-16 on third down and only gained 13 yards rushing and 115 overall. Five sacks and a forced fumble worked in our favor, too.

Some of it was the fact that SDSU was starting their backup quarterback, which doesn't bode well for a third-tier team coming into Camp Randall. But the main reason was vastly improved, tight coverage in the secondary combined with maniacal blitzing. This won't be as effective against a guy who lives and breathes short, quick passes like Chad Henne, but it sure worked against San Diego State.

Bruce: Tackling. The Badgers had allowed their first two opponents to convert exactly half of the third downs they faced that were five yards or longer. Most of
those conversions came on either running plays or short passes where the receiver gained yards after the catch to get the first down. Those things didn't happen against San Diego State. As a result, the defense had a much easier time getting off the field.

I hear a lot about Jack [I FORGET HIS VERY AFRICAN LAST NAME]. Shutdown
corner, next Starks, all that. Excessively enthusiastic hype? Or a presage to an two-time All Big Ten career?

BSB: Oh, he's the real deal alright. It'll be interesting to see what the Michigan coaching staff thinks about him, since he'll probably be covering Mario Manningham. I don't think he's at the point yet where a team hesitates to throw in his direction. It'll be all the more interesting since Ron Lee, his old coach, is now in charge of the defensive backs at Michigan. This is the first game of the 2006 season in which the secondary as a whole will be tested, and who better to show us what their strengths and (especially) weaknesses are than the guy who put the unit together last year?

The other dude on defense not to look past (and in my opinion, he's a bigger deal than Ikegwuonu) is weakside linebacker and special teams player extraordinaire Jonathan Casillas, who already has a 3.5 TFLs and a forced fumble this season. He'll be in the backfield causing havoc for at least part of the afternoon.

Bruce: You mean Ikegwuonu? I still have to look at his name on the depth chart to get it right. He has the size, speed, and smarts to be great, but I wouldn't be surprised if he got slightly abused on Saturday. He still needs work on his technique, and it's hard to imagine that he'll be consistently matched up one-on-one with either Manningham or Breaston. At this
point, I'll call it "excessively enthusiastic hype", but I reserve the right to change my mind in November.

What's the injury situation like on the DL? With Ostrowski out is there an adequate replacement? Is Jamal Cooper going to be healthy enough to be effective?

BSB: Yeah, replacing the injured with the injured is never a great situation. I'm no physiologist, but I think you have to let the guy who actually HAS some cartilage in his knee get the start, even if his shoulder is a little off. And by a little off, I mean bad enough to keep him in street clothes not a week before. I'm going to go ahead and say that UM plays far too ferociously for Jamal Cooper to leave the game in one piece.

Bruce: Ostrowski is out, but Jason Chapman and Nick Hayden are a nice one-two punch. Mike Newkirk is undersized, but he makes a decent third tackle. Jamal Cooper is fine. I think he sat the SDSU game as more of a precaution. Matthew Shaughnessy really had a nice game against SDSU, and I really like Kurt Ware, especially if he doesn't play every down (he doesn't look like a guy who can handle that chore).

Aaand predictions. Efficacy of Wisconsin run game?

BSB: Fair at the beginning, but once they see the passing game in action, Hill will have nowhere to go. I think he rushes for at least one first-half TD though.

Bruce: The Badgers will average four yards per carry or more in this game (not counting sacks - ooh disclaimer!). Not great, but not at Miami/Florida State levels, either.

Pass game?

BSB: Horrible. A WR corps that has a total of one receiving touchdown against Bowling Green, Western Illinois, and San Diego State will not add to that total against Michigan. If Brady Quinn gets picked off three times, I shudder to think of what might happen to Stocco.

Bruce: Stocco will be much better than he was against SDSU, but unless the Badgers are playing from behind all day, I can't see him throwing for 200 yards.

Do you stop Mike Hart okay?

BSB: Better than anyone has yet. He goes for under a hundred. UW has 8 guys in the box all day and Michigan's ground attack is most effective on draw plays on downs when the coordinators of most teams would be calling for passes.

Bruce: Mike Hart will hit a couple 20-plussers, and we won't stop him okay. He will have 22-140, or something reasonably similar.

And how about that Manningham guy?

BSB: He frightens me.

Bruce: Manningham won't hit for 100 yards because they won't need him to.

Final score?

BSB: Ugh. Michigan 30, Wisconsin 20, if and only if UW commits zero turnovers. One of the Badgers' TDs is scored by special teams or defense.

Either that or Wisconsin 47, Michigan 21.

Bruce: 23-10, Michigan. The Badgers will harass Henne just enough to keep the Wolverines from amassing huge numbers of points.

[Many thanks to both fine bloggers.]