What will it take for Michigan football to pull off shocking upset at Wisconsin?
Michigan looks for first victory over winning team
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It's been a very straightforward 2017 season for the Michigan football team.
Through 10 games, we still don't know very much about the Wolverines. In two games against winning teams, Michigan has lost. In eight games against losing teams, Michigan has been mostly dominant.
So what can we really say about Jim Harbaugh's team? It's way better than the likes of Rutgers, Maryland and Minnesota, but can it compete with a mid-level power such as Penn State?
Most college football fans who have watched the Wolverines would probably agree Michigan can be more than average. But so far, we haven't seen it. If Michigan wants to leave Madison with a victory this weekend, it will take its best performance of the year.
Specifically, here's what it will take for Michigan to pull off a major upset.
Get off to a fast start
It sounds like an overstatement, but it will be clear whether or not Michigan has a chance by the end of the first quarter.
In both of its losses, Michigan struggled in the first quarter and trailed at halftime. It was especially clear at Penn State that the Wolverines were in over their heads. Saquon Barkley already had two touchdown runs before five minutes had passed, and even though Michigan was only down eight points at halftime, it was a one-sided affair.
Michigan State certainly didn't dominate Michigan, but the 14-3 halftime deficit might as well have been four possessions for the Wolverines. It was clear they couldn't move the ball against the Spartans even before the torrential downpour, and that led to a loss.
If Michigan is overmatched in Madison, it will be obvious early. If not, that will open the door for a possible upset.
Recover from mistakes
When Michigan made mistakes early in the season, it was easy to brush it off as a young team that needed more time to mature. Now, 10 games into the season, youth is no longer an excuse.
Early in the first quarter against Michigan State, Michigan was actually controlling the game. The defense got a stop, the offense drove down the field and the defense got another stop. The Wolverines were driving with a lead when Ty Isaac fumbled the football, and it was all downhill from there.
Michigan gave up a touchdown on the ensuing drive, punted on its next two possessions and gave up another touchdown. That was enough to end the perfect season.
In the loss to Penn State, Michigan gave up a 69-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game. The Wolverines were visibly shaken. The offense went three-and-out, gave up a four-play touchdown drive and then went three-and-out again.
It took a huge Penn State miscue to get Michigan back in the game, as Trace McSorley threw an interception during a drive that looked as if it would make the game 21-0.
Wisconsin will capitalize on Michigan's mistakes, so Harbaugh can't let his team crumble at the first sign of adversity.
Continue to improve run blocking
With only two games left in the regular season, there's very little hope left for Michigan's passing game. It's clear the Wolverines can't pass the ball effectively because of the problem at quarterback and struggles stopping the pass rush.
But the one offensive area in which Michigan has greatly improved is run blocking. During its three-game winning streak, Michigan has rushed for a total of 865 yards. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans combined for 391 yards against Minnesota, and the team as a whole averaged 10 yards per carry.
The running backs have been solid all season, with Higdon, Evans and Isaac leading the way and Kareem Walker playing well in a limited role. But the interior offensive linemen have really come along during Big Ten play, and holes are opening up between the tackles.
Higdon and Isaac have both been dealing with injuries, but Harbaugh hinted that they have a chance to play this weekend. Either way, Michigan will live or die with the rushing attack this weekend, and it starts upfront.
Expose Alex Hornibrook
Michigan is facing a Wisconsin team that doesn't have many weaknesses, but there's one crack in the Badger armor that perfectly aligns with a Michigan strength.
Alex Hornibrook got off to an excellent start this season, throwing eight touchdown passes and only one interception during the nonconference season.
But in seven Big Ten games, it's been a completely different story. Hornibrook has thrown 11 interceptions in seven games, including three last week against Iowa. Against the top three teams the Badgers have faced -- Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue -- Hornibrook has thrown seven picks.
These interceptions aren't a result of high passing volume, either. Hornibrook has only attempted 206 passes this year, which is fewer than Michigan's total of 243. The Wolverines are a very pass-heavy offense, so Hornibrook has thrown even more interceptions in fewer attempts.
Michigan absolutely has to capitalize on Hornibrook's lack of ball security. Lavert Hill and David Long are two of the best cornerbacks in the nation, and if they return from injury to play in the game, they'll need to step up when the ball is thrown their way.
Wisconsin is unlikely to throw at Hill and Long often, so it might come down to weaker coverage players, such as Tyree Kinnel and Devin Bush, making a play on a poorly thrown ball.
Finish in the red zone
Michigan has gone through two stages of red zone struggles this season, and neither can persist if there's going to be an upset in Madison.
At the beginning of the season, Michigan couldn't turn red zone chances into touchdowns. Since Tarik Black went down, Michigan has struggled to find a big wide receiver to target in the red zone. Even the tight ends have been inconsistent as scoring options.
But Harbaugh has done an excellent job improving those woes, and Michigan is turning more of those goal line opportunities into touchdowns.
Now, the area of concern lies in the field goal kicking unit. Michigan's talented redshirt freshman kicker is in a major slump after starting his career cashing in on almost every opportunity he received.
Quinn Nordin showed why he was the most coveted kicker in the nation two years ago as he converted a pair of 50-yard field goals in the opener and made his next 10 attempts over a five-game span.
When Nordin's usage went down, however, so did his effectiveness. He missed an extra point for the first time at Penn State and hasn't converted a field goal since. In Michigan's three straight wins, Nordin has missed a field goal in each.
It's been a shocking slump for Nordin, who racked up 42 points in his first three college games. He's got NFL talent as a placekicker, but Harbaugh needs him to get back on track immediately. With Michigan's average offense, it can't afford to leave points on the board.
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