September 27, 2008

UW-Michigan breakdown

MADISON, Wis. - This is not the UW-Michigan match-up of old. You know, the one where both teams would line up and battle in the trenches and whosever team ran the ball better would grind the opponent into submission. Not anymore.

With the hiring of Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines became the newest member of the spread offense club while the Badger's, by sticking to their power run game, have become a minority throughout the conference.

With the Big Ten opener upon us, BadgerBlitz.com breaks down Saturday's contest:

When Wisconsin has the ball:

There is no question the Badgers will attempt to get the running game going right out of the chutes. P.J. Hill comes into the opener averaging 126.3 rushing yards per game, but has historically struggled against the Wolverines.

The good news for UW fans is that if Hill struggles, which based on his play so far may be unlikely, both Zach Brown and John Clay await in the wings, looking for their chance to impress. Remember, a season ago, Brown rushed for 108 yards and tallied two touchdowns against Michigan, so he has confidence en route to the "Big House."

At the same time, new starting quarterback Allan Evridge and the UW receivers have yet to find a consistent rhythm early in the season, putting more pressure on the tight end position.

Both Travis Beckum and Garrett Graham are a little nicked up and Beckum looked rusty in his first start of the season at Fresno State. Graham has been Evridge's favorite target and leads the team in both receiving yards and touchdowns, but he will be playing on a sore foot.

The best match-up of the day will be in the trenches. Michigan's defensive line is leading the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed. They return three starters and all four have great experience.

There is no doubt the Wolverines will attempt to bottle up the UW backs and force Evridge to throw. Look for them to bring pressure with the linebackers to rattle Evridge making his first start in a Big Ten stadium.

"That's a great challenge," UW offensive lineman Eric VandenHeuvel said. "It's us against them, a real experienced offensive line versus a real experienced, very talented defensive line."

Advantage: UW

When Michigan has the ball:

It seems the Wolverines are finally settling in on Steven Threet as their number one quarterback. In three games of action, the freshman averages 102.3 passing yards per game and has thrown two touchdowns.

After losing a wealth of talent at the skill positions a season ago, particularly at wide receiver, Threet is still trying to find chemistry among his wide outs. So far, Martavious Odoms leads the team with 120 receiving yards on 14 catches.

Perhaps the biggest weapon the Badgers will need to key in on is running back sensation Sam McGuffie. The kid is a pure talent. In his first three collegiate games as a true freshman, McGuffie has rushed for 213 yards and also has 101 yards receiving.

A key match-up will be how the UW linebackers are able to maintain leverage and keep him inside. Jonathan Casillas, DeAndre Levy and Jaevery McFadden are one of the fastest linebacker groups in the conference, so it will be up to them in order to slow McGuffie down.

Saturday's game will mark the first time the Badgers have seen Michigan's new look spread offense. Granted UW has had two full weeks to prepare for the new look, historically, they have not performed well against the spread. Michigan will need to take care of the ball, and if they do, this game will remain close.

"We've always struggled against the spread," UW defensive tackle Mike Newkirk said. "It's something that we hope to look to remedy, hope to look to answer the call and make corrections where we've failed in the past."

Advantage: This will be a tough test for the Badger defense, but they have the slight edge.

Special teams:

The Wolverines are everything the Badger's are not as far as experience in the special team area. Michigan boasts fifth year senior Zoltan Mesko at punter and junior K.C. Lopata at kicker.

The Badgers have true freshman Brad Nortman as their punter and he has been solid, although his worst game of the season came on the road against Fresno State. Freshman place kicker Philip Welch has also been solid for the Badgers, with his lone miss coming via a blocked field goal attempt.

Return wise, David Gilreath will play a major role in the contest. His great speed and very dynamic mobility will be important for the Wolverine's to contain.

The last time these two teams met at Michigan Stadium, special teams proved to be the most important aspect of the game. Just before the end of the first half, Zach Hampton muffed a punt return and Michigan rode the momentum of that turnover to a 27-13 win, UW's only loss of the season.

This Saturday, special teams will be just as important, but perhaps more so for the Wolverines as their offense has sputtered at times this season.

"What I was talking about from Michigan's standpoint was mainly the return game," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "They put so many balls on the ground. They had six plays of kickoff return and three of them resulted in a turnover, so I know that will get corrected."

Advantage: Gilreath will be dangerous and the two freshman kickers will be solid. UW gets the edge.

Prediction: There is no reason to think this game will not be competitive. Michigan like Wisconsin has had two weeks to prepare for the conference opener and feels like this game is a must win. They look at the start of the Big Ten season as one that can turn their 2008 campaign around.

Wisconsin wants this win just as bad as no team has won at Michigan since 1994. The Badgers have a legitimate shot at the Big Ten crown and it all starts with the conference opener.

UW grinds down the Wolverine front seven and wins 24-13.

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