ANN ARBOR, Mich. – College football fans can squabble about the strength of this year’s Wisconsin team all they want, but that won’t change the fact that Michigan just earned perhaps the most impressive win of the Jim Harbaugh era.
Twenty years had passed since Michigan’s last victory in Madison, and despite a 1-2 start for the Badgers, most probably expected them to get back on track at home against a team that simply hasn’t gotten the job done in big games.
For the first time, Harbaugh won a game as an underdog at Michigan -- and he did it by three touchdowns while his team took over Camp Randall.
Think about what Graham Mertz and the Badgers did to Michigan at the Big House less than 11 months ago. The Wolverines were outscored by 38 points, outgained by 249 yards and completely humiliated in front of a national audience.
Joe Milton was the team’s leading passer in that game; Zach Charbonnet the top rusher. Ronnie Bell, Nick Eubanks, Giles Jackson and Chris Evans combined for nine of the team’s 13 catches.
It’s amazing how much the roster has turned over in such a short time, and obviously for the better. This time around, it was Michigan outgaining Wisconsin by 155 yards and dominating pace of play. The Badgers gained just 1.3 yards per rush and turned the ball over three times. Michigan’s offense, for all its flaws, possessed the ball for nearly 35 minutes and converted four critical fourth-downs in five attempts.
The performance answered many of the questions that arose during a less inspiring effort against Rutgers. But not all of them.
At the forefront: What do we make of Cade McNamara? Michigan’s starting quarterback finished the day a solid 17-of-28 for 197 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. But there were times when McNamara missed open receivers, sometimes by a head-scratching margin.
McNamara’s accuracy first came into question when adversity struck the previous week against Rutgers. With Michigan desperately in need of a sustained drive during the second half, McNamara short-hopped a pair of receivers and forced the defense to spend nearly the entire second half on the field.
On Saturday, many of McNamara’s incompletions were catchable, but they weren’t on target. In the first half alone, four passes bounced off the hands of Daylen Baldwin (twice), Cornelius Johnson and Donovan Edwards. In all four instances, McNamara threw behind or short of his receivers, but they certainly could have made plays to help their quarterback.
There’s also the matter of McNamara struggling with the zone read -- so much so that true freshman J.J. McCarthy relieved him of those duties in the second half. The fact that McCarthy rushed for a score and also threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Baldwin only magnified the mistakes made by his predecessor.
Still, McNamara played well overall. He ran the offense effectively and found Johnson for touchdowns on two of his best throws. I’d say the positives outweigh the negatives.
Remember when everyone in the country knew Michigan would run the ball on basically every play against Washington? And the Wolverines still averaged 6.1 yards per attempt?
So far, Big Ten teams have proved much tougher against the run. Rutgers held Michigan to 2.9 yards per carry on 38 attempts, and Wisconsin’s No. 1-ranked rush defense allowed just 2.5 yards per carry on 44 tries.
Blake Corum played liked a Heisman Trophy candidate in the first three games, but now teams are making him a focal point of their game plans. He’s rushed for just 114 yards on 36 carries the last two weeks.
Michigan’s passing attack came through to beat Wisconsin, which is encouraging. But it would be nice to see the dominant rushing game return, since the Wolverines are obviously dedicated to 40-plus attempts per week.
Defense steps up
Michigan’s defense stepped up once again Saturday, holding the Badgers to just 210 total yards and only one touchdown before garbage time.
David Ojabo stood out for the second week in a row after sealing the Rutgers win with a strip sack. He recorded 2.5 sacks against Wisconsin and led the team with seven total tackles.
Meanwhile, Daxton Hill was a monster, flying all around the field, picking off a pass and delivering a hard hit to Mertz just when Wisconsin’s offense appeared to be hitting its stride.
In total, the Wolverines registered six sacks and more than twice as many quarterback hits. They were in the backfield all game, and Wisconsin’s only meaningful touchdown drive required two perfect throws from Mertz in the waning moments of the first half.
Michigan has yet to face a dangerous offense, but it’s at least shutting down the bad ones.
Michigan’s 4-0 start said just as much about the competition as it did the Wolverines, but this week’s win might have changed that perception.
The defense is drastically improved, led by Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson along the line. An inability to pressure the quarterback crippled Michigan in 2020, but it takes a special effort to sack the quarterback six times against Wisconsin’s offensive line.
Maybe it’s unfair, but I’m still skeptical of McNamara and the offense. Inaccuracy and dropped passes will come back to haunt Michigan against the likes of Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State, and the running game doesn’t look like it can carry the load on its own.
The road doesn’t get any easier next week, as Michigan faces another tough environment at night in Nebraska. Execution on offense will be critical to keep what’s sure to be a raucous crowd from taking over the game.