Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan: Ground game means everything

The Wisconsin Badgers face their 3rd top-10 team of the season on Saturday in the Michigan Wolverines. Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
The Wisconsin Badgers face their 3rd top-10 team of the season on Saturday in the Michigan Wolverines. Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports /

If the Wisconsin Badgers are going to walk into The Big House and defeat 4th-ranked Michigan, they will need to win the rushing battle – offensively and defensively.

The 8th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers have long relied on the rushing attack for victory.

Saturday’s Big Ten battle with 10-point favorite Michigan will require a superhuman effort running the ball and an elite performance stuffing the ground game.

While most people are in love with the aerial assault in football, Wisconsin’s only change at win is with an old-school focus.

It all begins with the Badgers’ defense, a unit that has been phenomenal in their 4-0 start. The defense itself has given up just 33 points (8.25 per game).

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They’re also allowing only 80.5 rushing yards per contest, 10th in college football. That number will be challenged in a big way come Saturday.

Michigan, against mostly cupcake opponents, is scoring 52 points per game. That ranks fourth in NCAA football.

The Wolverines have put up 229.8 yards on the ground per game during their 4-0 start. Senior De’Veon Smith has 259 yards and two touchdowns thus far.

Smith is the true workhorse in the backfield.

Meanwhile, Chris Evans is averaging 7.3 yards per carry and has three scores on 29 rushes. Michigan has versatility and depth at the position with Ty Isaac also providing production.

At 5.4 yards per rush, the Michigan ground game puts its unit in easy 2nd and 3rd-down situations. Wisconsin will need to shut down the tailbacks on those early snaps.

So far, the Badgers are allowing just 3.2 yards per carry.

Wisconsin needs an A-game from senior Corey Clement. Before getting hurt against Akron, he had 42 carries for 197 yards and three touchdowns to open the season.

The Badgers’ front seven clearly mark the defense’s strength with quick, physical, high-motor athletes who run their scheme flawlessly. This group has dictated play in their two biggest games against Michigan St. and LSU.

If they can force Michigan into longer 3rd-down situations, they will make QB Wilton Speight uncomfortable. Speight hasn’t been under much duress yet this season.

Should the Badgers make him beat them with his arm consistently, they’ll have opportunity to knock him down and create turnovers.

While you can bet on the defense giving Wisconsin a chance to win, the offense will still need to find the end zone. That will be the more challenging part.

Michigan’s defense is quick, powerful and dynamic. They have loads of talent at every level of the defense, wreaking havoc in all areas.

Wisconsin will need a solid game plan and even better execution – especially from the running game.

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The Wisconsin Badgers’ front seven needs to set the tone against Michigan, which includes Vince Biegel. Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

First of all, it would be a lot to expect freshman QB Alex Hornibrook to play well enough to put the team on his back. He had a solid first start, but let’s not anoint him yet.

Hornibrook worked with short fields against Michigan St. and threw for less than 200 yards. He also had an interception in each of his last two games.

Considering the type of pressure Hornibrook could see up the middle from Chris Wormley and Maurice Hurst, it could get ugly fast. Too many early hits could rattle the young southpaw into costly mistakes.

So the running backs need to produce to keep the interior defensive line honest, and get consistent yardage to avoid obvious passing downs.

Wisconsin needs an A-game from senior Corey Clement. He didn’t fair all that well on the ground in East Lansing, but he scored twice and came out of it healthy despite 23 carries.

Before getting hurt against Akron, however, he had 42 carries for 197 yards and three touchdowns to open the season.

It’ll be anything but easy to find yards against Michigan, but they are susceptible to quality offensive lines and backs.

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Despite leading big in most of their games and allowing less than 150 passing yards per contest, the Wolverines have yielded a decent amount on the ground.

They’re giving up 122.5 rushing yards per game – 40th in the country.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Badgers’ rushing attack without a fully healthy Clement has picked up an average of 184 yards a game.

Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw have been solid as fill-ins, but Wisconsin needs a true playmaker on the field to put a dent into Michigan’s defense.

Clement has the ability to create holes that aren’t there, pick up chunks of yards, and bust loose for a game-changing sprint to pay dirt. Coach Paul Chryst needs him to handle at least 20 more carries Saturday.

Next: Wisconsin Badgers' defense dominant to start 2016

If the Wisconsin Badgers play their own game, focus on winning the battle of the ground games, and make just a few extra plays on both sides of the ball, an upset victory is entirely possible.