MADISON, Wis. — Coming into Week 4, the Michigan-Wisconsin game was a chance for two top-15 teams to answer some serious questions about their programs.
Wisconsin had shut out its first two opponents, South Florida and Central Michigan, but how difficult was the competition? Michigan had struggled with turnovers in wins over Middle Tennessee State and Army, but would the Wolverines be able to turn it on against a top team?
After Wisconsin thoroughly beat Michigan, 35-14, many of those questions were answered, and the results were not pretty for the Wolverines. Here are the six biggest takeaways from the Badgers’ resounding victory.
1. Harbaugh, Michigan at a crossroads
The questions about whether the Wolverines were headed in the right direction under Harbaugh became louder after getting throttled 62-39 against Ohio State last year, dropping Harbaugh’s record to 0-4 against his rival. But with new offensive coordinator Josh Gattis coming in to modernize the offense, things were supposed to be different in 2019.
The Wolverines’ offense looked anything but modern against Wisconsin, rushing for nine yards in the first half against the Badgers and fumbling the ball for the sixth time this season, three more than all of last season. Harbaugh’s road isn’t going to get any easier, either, as the team still has to take on Iowa, Michigan State, Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. None of those games seem like easy wins after the first three games and if Harbaugh can’t figure out a way to at least beat Ohio State, the problems are only going to increase.
2. Wisconsin is a serious playoff contender
The Badgers shut out South Florida and Central Michigan to start the season, but after a disappointing 2018 display, the question was if Wisconsin was the real deal or if the competition was weak. That has been answered after the Badgers dismantled the Wolverines, shutting Michigan out for three quarters.
The Wisconsin defense went 14 quarters without allowing a single point, going back to last year’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl, when Miami scored a field goal in the first quarter. Outside of the defense, having a balanced attack on offense has proven to be a difficult unit to stop for even Michigan.
The Badgers gave Michigan its worst first-half deficit under Harbaugh, leading 28-0 after two quarters, and have a lot still that could be accomplished. With Jack Coan showing accuracy and good decision making, combined with good offensive line play and Jonathan Taylor at running back, this Wisconsin team should not just be talked about as a Big Ten conference champion contender, but as a team that could have a shot at the playoff.
3. Jonathan Taylor is a real Heisman threat
Speaking of Taylor, the junior had 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter against Michigan. Had it not been for cramps hampering him early in the game, Taylor might have been able to pad those stats even more as he was moving the ball with ease. Despite the injury, he still finished with 203 yards on 8.8 yards per carry.
He has a shot at being one of the best college football running backs of all time, rushing for 4,171 yards and 29 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Entering the game against Michigan, Taylor already had 237 yards and five touchdowns and Wisconsin has found a way to even get him involved in the passing game.
If Taylor can stay healthy, this can be a special season for him and Wisconsin.
4. Michigan’s offense can’t find space
The entire offseason, Gattis spoke about the offense creating speed in space and how it will use its playmakers on the outside. Through the first three games, the Wolverines are struggling to do much of anything.
The offense has fumbled the ball seven times and doesn’t seem to be finding any kind of groove. The offensive line isn’t showing much improvement, and outside of freshman running back Zach Charbonnet, the run game is abysmal.
If it were a personnel or recruiting problem that needed to take time, that would be one thing. But Michigan has the pieces in place and can’t find a way to execute on offense.
5. Quarterback questions remain for Wolverines
There was some hope for Michigan’s offense when Shea Patterson announced his transfer from Ole Miss prior to the 2018 season. That a mobile quarterback with the ability to make a big play could help elevate the offense.
Patterson completed 64.6 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,600 yards, 22 touchdowns an seven interceptions. Through the first two games against Middle Tennessee State and Army, Patterson threw for 410 yards and three touchdowns, hardly the outcome the Wolverines were hoping for.
Backup Dylan McCaffrey started the second half in place of Patterson but left the game after taking a vicious hit in the third quarter. And while Patterson made some nice throws late, the Harbaugh-Patterson duo has not delivered what was hoped.
6. Don’t forget about Michigan’s defense
The defense has been Michigan’s strength for the past few seasons, but after losing some big names from 2018, including first-round draft picks Devin Bush (LB) and Rashan Gary (DL), plus defensive lineman Chase Winovich, it has struggled.
Against Wisconsin, the unit struggled to keep contain Wisconsin’s ground game and repeatedly let Taylor loose on big plays. The defense allowed four rushing touchdowns in a single half for the first time in 20 years. (It hadn’t allowed four rushing touchdowns in an entire game, let alone a half, since 2014.)
The defense gave up 21 points against Middle Tennessee State and 21 against Army, which required double overtime to secure a win. This season’s product on the field is not typical of what Michigan’s defenses have produced under coordinator Don Brown, and it needs to improve if the Wolverines are going to have a shot at a strong finish.