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Will Wisconsin’s long layoff be enough to put Michigan football back in win column?

Badgers haven’t played since Oct. 23 vs. Illinois

Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines walks on the field calling out to his team during warm ups before the game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on November 07, 2020 in Bloomington, Indiana.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines walks on the field calling out to his team during warm ups before the game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on November 07, 2020 in Bloomington, Indiana. (2020 Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football is looking to get back on track after a difficult couple of weeks, but nobody really knows know what to expect from this Wisconsin team.

In its only game of the season -- Oct. 23 against Illinois -- Wisconsin looked like the best team in the West Division. New starting quarterback Graham Mertz was almost perfect, completing 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns.

Other than one Illinois fumble return for a touchdown in the second quarter, the Badgers were completely dominant, scoring six touchdowns and allowing just 218 total yards.

Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers calls out instructions in the fourth quarter against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Camp Randall Stadium on September 07, 2019 in Madison, Wisconsin.
Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers calls out instructions in the fourth quarter against the Central Michigan Chippewas at Camp Randall Stadium on September 07, 2019 in Madison, Wisconsin. (2019 Getty Images)

The day after the win, however, Wisconsin learned that Mertz had tested positive for COVID-19. Per Big Ten rules, he was required to sit out for 21 days before returning to game action.

Fortunately for the Badgers, they opened the season on a Friday night, meaning Mertz is eligible to return Saturday -- the exact day of the Michigan game.

If he’s good to go -- Mertz was allowed to return to practice on the 19th of his 21 days -- the Michigan secondary is in big trouble. Vincent Gray and Gemon Green haven’t been able to keep up with Michigan State or Indiana receivers the last two weeks, and now that Michigan is without Aidan Hutchinson, opposing quarterbacks will have even more time to pick them apart.

Don Brown and the Michigan defense have earned the criticism coming their way, but the offense also deserves some blame for the two-game losing streak. Everyone from the quarterback to the skill players to the offensive line struggled against Michigan State. Then, last week, Joe Milton threw two interceptions and the team rushed for 13 yards on 18 carries.

Brad Hawkins #20 of the Michigan Wolverines lays on the field after breaking up a play during the second quarter against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on November 07, 2020 in Bloomington, Indiana.
Brad Hawkins #20 of the Michigan Wolverines lays on the field after breaking up a play during the second quarter against the Indiana Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium on November 07, 2020 in Bloomington, Indiana. (2020 Getty Images)

This season has been a comedy of errors for Michigan since the impressive opening victory against Minnesota. On Saturday, the question is whether Wisconsin can bounce back from the long layoff.

After Mertz’s positive test was announced, more than a dozen other Wisconsin players tested positive and were forced to sit out. As a result, the Badgers canceled their games against Nebraska and Purdue. It’s unclear which players are still ineligible for the Michigan game. Some players will be returning after very little practice time.

How will that affect Wisconsin? Will the Badgers be without some of their key players?

The betting line took a major swing toward Wisconsin late in the week, so it’s possible Mertz and others could be returning. Or maybe people just watched highlights from Michigan’s last two games.

If the COVID-19 outbreak is still affecting Wisconsin, Michigan could have a chance. But with Mertz eligible to return and Wisconsin clearly the better team at full strength, I’ll take the Badgers in a 38-24 game.


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