The teams: The No. 13 Wisconsin Badgers (1-0) at the Michigan Wolverines (1-2)
The time: 6:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
The TV coverage: ABC with Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit in the booth, and Maria Taylor on the sideline.
The last time: Running back Jonathan Taylor ran for 203 and two touchdowns as Wisconsin rolled to a 35-14 win last season.
The series: Michigan leads 51-16-1
The line: Wisconsin -4.5
The Badgers injury report:
QB Jack Coan (foot)
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) Returning to play
After having its last two games canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program, Wisconsin returns to the field Saturday to resume its season. What kind of team the Badgers put out there remains to be seen. Not only have they not played a game in two weeks while all the other Big Ten teams have, it’s unclear how many players will be unavailable. The Big Ten mandates that players sit 21 days after testing positive for COVID-19. Though coach Paul Chryst didn’t have a specific number of players that will miss the game, he told the Big Ten Network this week it would be in the double digits.
However, Chryst said there are four players making their way through the return to play protocol this week and that included quarterback Graham Mertz. He reportedly tested positive on Oct. 24, meaning his 21-day wait period began the following day. Players are allowed to returned to competition on the 21st day, which for Mertz would be Saturday. Assuming that timeline is correct, Mertz would have been allowed to practice Thursday and Friday. Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said what he was able to show them during those sessions would determine whether he plays Saturday against Michigan.
2) If Mertz can go…
The last time everyone saw Mertz he was completing 21 of 22 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns in his starting debut against Illinois. Yeah, the Illini weren’t very good, but Michigan’s secondary has been even worse through the first three games of the season. The Wolverines are giving up 287.7 yards per game through the air, which ranks 13th in the Big Ten and 104th in the country.
If Mertz is good to go, he could have another big day with wide receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, along with tight end Jake Ferguson.
3) If Mertz can’t go…
If Mertz isn’t cleared to play, the Badgers would be looking to Danny Vanden Boom to take over. With normal starter Jack Coan still recovering from foot surgery, and Chase Wolf reportedly testing positive for the disease after Mertz did, the junior would be the next man in.
“The group has confidence in (Vanden Boom), without question. They know he knows it,” Rudolph said this week. “They know he’s smart, he communicates well and he exudes confidence in the huddle. So if we’re rolling with Danny, this group would be all behind him and feel good about it.”
Though he hasn’t thrown a pass in college since 2018, Vanden Boom was very successful as a high school quarterback at Kimberly (Wis.). The 2017 Gatorade Player of the Year in Wisconsin, Vanden Boom was 28-0 as a starter and led his team to a pair of state titles.
4) Getting the run game going
Whether it’s Mertz or Vanden Boom at quarterback, the Badgers have to run the ball better than they did against Illinois. Only one of Wisconsin’s running backs — Garrett Groshek — topped 3.3 yards per carry and as a team the Badgers averaged only 3.4 yards per carry.
Some of that can be attributed to Illinois, which has held Wisconsin’s running game in check in three of Lovie Smith’s five years as coach in Champaign. But it was also clear that new starters on the interior of the Badgers offensive line, along with some missed chances for big plays by the backs, were largely to blame for the struggles.
“I saw some opportunities, through a lot of different spots, whether it was a block here or a finish of a run there, where we could be a little better and maximize opportunities better,” Rudolph said. “I’m excited for us to keep taking steps there.”
It won’t be easy against the Wolverines, which have stopped the run well so far this season, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry.
5) Dealing with Joe Milton
Michigan’s junior quarterback has been up and down through the first three weeks of the season, but defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard sees a very difficult guy to deal with on tape.
“He’s a big, strong athlete. He’s mobile, he can move in the pocket and extend plays. He’s going to have probably as strong of an arm as we’re going to play all season,” Leonhard said. “He’s one of those guys that you turn on (their film) and his best plays scare the hell out of you because of what he can do with his feet. He can change numbers in the run game. Then throwing the ball, when he’s on, every game he’s made a throw where you’re like, ‘wow.’ You just don’t see that every week.”
In Milton’s first start in a win at Minnesota he was very good, completing 68.2% of his passes for 225 yards and a touchdown. The last two weeks have not been as good in losses to Michigan State and Indiana, including a pair of interceptions.
“I know they are frustrated with some of the inconsistency, but we can’t count on that,” Leonhard said. “He’s a young guy that every game he’s going to continue to improve and learn. We’re preparing to play the one that is hot. We hope he doesn’t show up to be that guy.”
Wisconsin’s defense was dominant in Week 1, giving up just 218 yards to the Illini, much of it on scrambles and keepers from quarterback Brandon Peters. That is one area where the Badgers will have to be better, as Milton has even better mobility and can hurt them with his legs having run for at least 50 yards in two of the three games this season.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
Wisconsin is 35-1 under Chryst when scoring at least 30 points. Michigan comes into the game giving up just under that at 29.7 points per game.
Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson has played in 28 games and he’s caught a pass in every single one of them. The 28 straight games with a catch is the seventh-longest streak in the country. Ferguson had a career-high seven catches and three touchdowns against Illinois.
Wisconsin is favored by 4.5 points over Michigan. It’s just the third time the Badgers have been a road favorite in a matchup between the two schools. They won as 4-point favorites in 2010 and lost as 4.5-point favorites in 2008.