Beat Writer Breakdown: Breaking down the Michigan-Wisconsin football game with Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal
Bowl eligible and riding a two-game win streak, the Michigan football team enters its toughest two-game stretch of the season, finishing with Big Ten title contenders Wisconsin and Ohio State.
The Badgers are up first, and they haven't forgotten losing 27-25 at Michigan in 2008.
To help break down Saturday's game, AnnArbor.com invited Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal to participate in our Beat Writer Breakdown.
Q; Every year, Wisconsin seems to have a bruising, dominating running back. This year the Badgers have three. If you could, break down the differences between John Clay, James White and Montee Ball. Who gets the majority of carries Saturday?
Tom Mulhern: "The best way to describe the difference in the backs is what Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said earlier in the season. Clay is first gear, Ball is second gear and White is third gear. Clay is the bruiser, who is at his best between the tackles, running over defenders. Ball is more like Clay than White, but has shown a little more burst the last couple weeks and has had a few more long runs. White is the quickest Badgers back since Brian Calhoun in 2005. It's impressive, White's ability to get around the corner. Several of his touchdowns have been around end. I keep thinking defenses will catch on to it, but he still manages to get the corner. Clay didn't practice on Tuesday and his status is questionable.
"As of this writing (Wednesday afternoon), I would guess Ball and White will split the carries fairly evenly, as they did last week against Indiana."
Q: Wisconsin has struggled over the last decade in the state of Michigan. Any idea why? Have the players or coaches referenced it at all?
TM: "Most of the talk has been about Wisconsin's second-half collapse in 2008 (at Michigan), when the Badgers blew a 19-0 halftime lead and lost 27-25. Bielema mentioned it in the locker room after the Indiana game and again in a team meeting on Sunday. The basic feeling is this is a much different team than that one. That collapse was the first time a Bielema team lost after leading at halftime. It was also the first of three fourth-quarter collapses that season, also including losses to Ohio State and Michigan State. Wisconsin has now won 10 of its last 11 games decided by eight points or less, so it has apparently learned some lessons.
"Let's face it, a lot of teams have struggled to win at Michigan over the years. The Badgers blew their chance in 2008 when Michigan was down. The other four losses came to teams ranked in the top 15. There have been some strange occurrences in that stretch. I remember Drew Henson's game-winning touchdown pass to David Terrell in the 20-17 loss in 2000, which was thrown back across the field as he was being flushed from the pocket and probably should have been picked. Then, there was a pass dropped in the end zone by UW freshman Jonathan Orr in 2002, which could have forced overtime in a 21-14 loss."
Q: How dominant has J.J. Watt been this year? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
TM: "Watt has been the second-best defensive end I've seen all year, after Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan. And Watt outplayed Kerrigan in their head-to-head matchup two weeks ago. Wisconsin has been fortunate to have defensive ends in back-to-back years who have played so relentlessly and with such high motors. In fact, Watt spent a lot of time watching film of O'Brien Schofield over the summer and realizing he needed to play that hard every snap, even if the play went away from him. Watt's production has been impressive: 18 TFLs, six sacks, six pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. For a while, he was basically the only playmaker on defense. He has also made plays on special teams with two blocked kicks. He was not much of a pass rusher last year but worked hard to develop a counter to his bull rush and has been effective, especially during Big Ten play.
"He's got decent quickness for a 292-pound guy. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He had a missed tackle on a 67-yard run to his side last week and it was kind of shocking to see because he hasn't had many of those moments this season. He's a high-energy player who has been fun to watch."
Q: This Wisconsin team seems on a path toward the Rose Bowl. Has there been any talk about that at all the past few weeks?
TM: "Bielema has been pretty good about deflecting the Rose Bowl talk and his players have followed his lead. It used to be the '1-0' philosophy we heard, ad nauseum. Now, it's, 'No day is more important than today.' Most of the focus has been on the BCS standings and whether Ohio State will overtake UW if there is a three-way tie (with Michigan State). The last Big Ten title here was 1999 and I think fans are anxious for another one. If Wisconsin loses out on the Rose Bowl -- especially because of BCS ranking to a team it beat -- there will be plenty of grumbling.
"But UW has nobody to blame but itself for its lousy non-conference schedule, which is killing it in the computer rankings. Also, if UW goes to another BCS game, like the Orange or Sugar bowls, I think fans would get on board pretty quickly because of the novelty of going somewhere new."
Q: How does Wisconsin plan on simulating Denard Robinson, who has been a problem for most teams this season?
TM: "Wisconsin has a walk-on (Drew McAdams) it brought in, basically to be the scout-team quarterback for spread opponents. Otherwise, the guy is a wide receiver. The problem is he's not very fast. So, they use a freshman running back who is being redshirted, Jeff Lewis, to simulate running quarterbacks. The only problem, he can't throw. I don't think they've got anybody on the roster as quick as Robinson. Then again, opposing teams have difficulty simulating Clay and the Wisconsin offensive line, I'm sure."