Win over Wisconsin would validate major improvements Michigan football has made this season

No. 12 Wolverines host No. 15 Badgers this weekend

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst before the matchup in 2016. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The national narrative surrounding Michigan football this season is the same one that's lingered throughout the Jim Harbaugh era.

The Wolverines are known for being loaded with talent on defense and more or less bland on offense. Michigan pounds on weak teams while struggling in big games and on the road.

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So far, with a loss to the only good team on the schedule and two inconsistent performances away from Ann Arbor, Michigan has earned its reputation. It's been years since the Wolverines have faced a high-profile, must-win game and come away with a win.

Another opportunity will present itself this weekend, as No. 15 Wisconsin comes to town.

Mixed results from Wisconsin

Despite coming into the season ranked No. 4 in the nation, the highest mark of any Big Ten team, some of the shine has come off the Badgers.

Wisconsin was victimized by one of the biggest upsets of the first six weeks, falling to 23.5-point underdog BYU at home. The Badgers outgained the Cougars by 83 yards, but the inability to finish drives with touchdowns doomed the heavy favorite.

Since beating Wisconsin, BYU has lost by 28 at Washington and got smacked by Utah State, 45-20, at home. The Cougars might not make a bowl game, so that loss looks even worse for Wisconsin.

Adam Pulsipher and Merrill Taliauli of the BYU Cougars celebrate after a missed field goal in the fourth quarter of the game by the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 15, 2018, in Madison, Wisconsin. BYU won 24-21. (Joe…

Wisconsin bounced back to beat Iowa in a matchup that has historically determined who will represent the West Division in the Big Ten Championship Game. How good is Iowa? The Hawkeyes haven't played a difficult schedule, but they're undefeated outside the Wisconsin loss.

But the BYU game put the country on watch for any cracks in the Wisconsin armor, and Nebraska raised concerns last weekend in a loss.

Despite falling, 41-24, the winless Cornhuskers put up more than 400 passing yards and 518 yards of total offense against Wisconsin. It was a team just two weeks removed from being held to 132 yards against Michigan.

Those two performances -- BYU and Nebraska -- have changed the perception of Wisconsin coming into the season as an elite team. But most of the major pieces are still in place from a team that went 12-0 last season and nearly punched its playoff ticket in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Jonathan Taylor

There are a handful of players in college football who have the ability to carry their team to a win in any game, and one of those will be in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

Johnathan Taylor is perhaps the most dynamic running back in the country, averaging 6.7 yards per carry and 169.8 yards per game. The sophomore has topped 100 rushing yards in all five games this season and went well over 200 yards against both New Mexico and Nebraska.

He's already reached the end zone eight times.

Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Camp Randall Stadium on August 31, 2018 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Saturday will be a challenge for Taylor, but statistically, he's already seen a defense that ranks higher than Michigan's in stopping the run. The Wolverines are sixth in the country, allowing 96.5 rushing yards per game, but Iowa is fifth at 84.4 rushing yards allowed per game.

Taylor put up his lowest rushing total of the year against Iowa but still managed to gain 113 yards on 25 carries.

He burned the Wolverines for 132 yards on 19 carries in the matchup last season, a 24-10 win for the Badgers in Madison.

Everything Wisconsin wants to do Saturday will center around Taylor, from establishing the run to taking pressure off quarterback Alex Hornibrook to controlling the clock and shortening the game.

If Michigan can contain Taylor, it will have a great chance to win the game.

How Michigan can attack Wisconsin

Michigan has fielded a surprisingly dangerous offense over the last month, scoring more than 40 points in four of five games.

Quarterback Shea Patterson is the No. 1 reason for Michigan's offensive improvement. He can hit open receivers in stride and allow them to pick up yards after the catch. He can escape pressure and extend plays to find targets downfield. At times, he's even used his legs to run for first downs when Michigan absolutely needed to move the chains.

Shea Patterson looks to throw a pass against Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Wisconsin ranks 54th in the country in terms of pass defense, allowing 219.6 yards per game. Opponents are completing 58.3 percent of their pass attempts against Wisconsin, while Patterson comes into the game at a 68.8 percent clip.

Western Michigan is the only pass defense Michigan has seen that ranks higher than Wisconsin, so Saturday night will be a stiff test for Patterson.

One positive for Patterson is an apparent mismatch in the trenches, surprisingly in Michigan's favor. Only five teams -- Tulsa, Akron, Georgia State, Air Force and Texas State -- have recorded fewer sacks than Wisconsin this season. The Badgers have only gotten to the quarterback five times in five games.

Michigan, on the other hand, is trending up in pass protection. After allowing three sacks against Notre Dame and two against Western Michigan, the offensive line has kept Patterson upright. SMU, Nebraska and Northwestern managed just one sack apiece against Michigan, and Maryland never got to Patterson.

Ed Warinner's offensive line deserves a ton of credit for its improvement, but Patterson's mobility has also been a major factor.

Michigan's average rushing attack should be able to move the ball in some form against Wisconsin, which allows 4.43 yards per carry. Michigan is running for more than 5 yards per carry this season.

Prove-it time

No matter how much the statistics appear to favor Michigan or how much Wisconsin has struggled early in the season, the Wolverines have to actually go out and win the game Saturday, something they traditionally haven't done on this type of stage.

It's a top-15 matchup at night, with ESPN's "College Gameday" in attendance, against a team Michigan should beat. This situation couldn't have set up more nicely for Harbaugh's squad.

Shea Patterson looks over center against Maryland on Oct. 6, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

But until Michigan capitalizes on one of these opportunities, it hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt.

Over the last five weeks, Michigan has shown offensive firepower it hasn't had under Harbaugh for the last three years. The offensive line has looked capable for nearly a half-season's worth of games for the first time in a decade, and the quarterback is a legitimate threat to pass or run.

If Michigan beats Wisconsin, all of these factors will turn into reasons the Wolverines could compete for a Big Ten title.

But if Michigan loses, we'll know the last five weeks were just another mirage against weak teams.

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