Last Saturday we learned the truth behind the slow start to Rich Rodriguez’s career as head coach of Michigan football.
It’s not a matter of getting the right players to fit the system or the cupboard being left bare by the outgoing staff. It’s not that he’s forced to start a true freshman quarterback or two walk-ons on defense.
It’s all part of Rodriguez’s master plan: to stop every streak Michigan has going so that he can start them all up again himself.
Then, decades from now, when Michigan is enjoying another long bowl streak or when Michigan nails down its 20th straight win over Purdue, folks will look back and say that streak was started by Rich Rodriguez.
He will be revered the way Bo Schembechler is now.
OK, so maybe not. But it’s a good conspiracy theory anyway.
It seems that every week another Michigan streak falls. Last week it was Michigan’s first home loss to Purdue since 1966.
If Michigan fails to win one of its final two games, it will be the first time since 1973 and '74 that Michigan missed a bowl game two years in a row.
That streak is one that Michigan desperately needs to start anew if for no other reason than the added month of practice time and recruiting.
So how does it get to a bowl this season? It’s simple, at least in theory: win one of the next two games.
It starts on Saturday with a trip to Madison, Wisc. to battle the 20th ranked Badgers – a team hot for revenge after filling one of the three win slots on Michigan’s schedule last season.
In that game, the first Big Ten game of the season for both teams, Wisconsin entered 3-0 and No. 9 in the nation. Michigan fell behind 19-0 at the half before battling back with four second-half touchdowns to win 27-25.
At the time, it seemed to be a signature win for Rodriguez, but it started a streak of four straight losses (and five of six) for the Badgers.
And Wisconsin head coach Brent Bielema hasn’t forgotten.
“To be in the situation we were at half and to finish that game out the way it did, leaves a very bad taste, and then we all know what happened after that,” Bielema said. “We’ve battled our tails off to get to where we are right now, and Michigan is the next opportunity.
“I’ll talk about the opportunities that you have in front of you, and this is our next step to get to where we want to be, and Michigan is that team that we have to focus on.”
This season, Wisconsin has avoided the letdown and boasts the conference’s second-best rush offense and best running back in John Clay.
Clay averages 108.1 yards per game (5.1 yards per carry) and leads the Big Ten with 11 touchdowns. He scored one of Wisconsin’s touchdowns against Michigan in last season’s match-up.
The redshirt sophomore has rushed for five 100-yard games this season and is just 27 yards short of 1,000 yards on the season.
Stopping Clay and getting some push back against the very big offensive line has to be priority number one for Michigan if it wants any chance of winning this game.
Redshirt junior quarterback Scott Tolzien has a good passer rating 132.6 (third in the Big Ten), but he’s much more of a game manager than a quarterback that will dominate the game.
He has thrown for just 1,717 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions on the season, which is very comparable to Michigan freshman quarterback Tate Forcier’s numbers so far (1,636 touchdowns, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions), though Tolzien isn’t a threat to carry the ball like Forcier is.
That’s the type of team Michigan typically hangs tough with. Though not exactly the same, see the Iowa and Michigan State games, in comparison to teams with mobile quarterbacks and big-time passing attacks that Michigan struggle with like Penn State and Purdue.
In its two losses this season, to Ohio State and Iowa, Wisconsin’s run game was essentially shut down. Ohio State held Clay to just 66 yards on 20 carries, while forcing Tolzien to throw 45 times. Iowa held Clay to 80 yards on 21 carries.
If Michigan lets Clay run all over, it will be a very long day for the maize and blue.
The biggest problem for Michigan’s defense this season has been the secondary.
Junior quarterback Donovan Warren has played well all season, while Troy Woolfolk began the season at safety and moved to the other corner position when sophomore Boubacar Cissoko was dismissed from the team.
Woolfolk has fared well, but the safety position has been vulnerable with sophomore Mike Williams and walk-on redshirt freshman Jordan Kovacs struggling.
Kovacs is good at blitzing and run stopping, but doesn’t have the speed to cover and Williams has seen the ball sail over his head more times than outfielders did in Yankee Stadium this season.
The fact that Wisconsin’s receivers aren’t huge threats leads me to believe Michigan has a chance to at least hang in this game.
Redshirt sophomore Nick Toon, the son of former NFL receiver Al Toon, has been stellar, leading the team with 37 catches for 535 yards. Last week against Indiana, he had a career high 123 yards, so Warren will be tasked with keeping him at bay. He has only reached the end zone twice this season.
The team’s second leading receiver is tight end Garrett Graham. A fifth-year senior, Graham is arguably the best tight end in the Big Ten with 30 receptions for 342 yards and four touchdowns. He could have a big day, given Michigan’s inability to cover tight ends this season.
Defensively, Wisconsin ranks in the top 20 in rush defense, surrendering 102.8 yards per game. Throw out the non-conference match-ups and the defense is even stingier, allowing just 72 yards per game.
No team has featured a 100-yard rusher against Wisconsin’s defense all season, and only seven rushers have found the end zone through nine games.
The last time we heard a stat like that was against Iowa, which hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown in 33 quarters dating back to last season. Michigan scored three rushing touchdowns in the game and hung with the 12th-ranked Hawkeyes before ultimately falling 30-28.
Michigan’s rushing attack has been its strength this season, with seniors Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown combining for over 1,000 yards and quarterbacks Forcier and Denard Robinson combining for another 750.
Wisconsin also boasts a great pass rush, led by O’Brien Schofield. The fifth-year senior leads the Big Ten with 18.5 tackles for loss and ranks second with 7.5 sacks. Redshirt sophomore J.J. Watt has 10.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as the other defensive end.
Michigan’s offensive line has been a disappointment this season, especially after losing center David Molk midway through the season.
Last week it got an encouraging sign when redshirt freshman Patrick Omameh started at right guard and played well enough to keep the spot.
Unfortunately, Michigan’s only option at right tackle seems to be Mark Huyge, who got dominated by another great rush defensive end, Ryan Kerrigan, all day last Saturday.
Michigan has to be able to control the ball, which isn’t exactly the forte of a Rich Rodriguez offense. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in time of possession, with 32.58. Michigan ranks last at 26.34, though still leads the conference in scoring.
Time of possession isn’t as big of a key as taking care of the ball, another category in which Michigan finds itself in the cellar.
If Michigan is able to hold onto the ball and capitalize on its possessions, it will have a chance. I find it hard to believe it will be able to hold Wisconsin to a low-scoring game, so Michigan has to take advantage of its opportunities.
Michigan hasn’t won in Camp Randall Stadium since 1999 and I don’t think that trend will be broken this year.
I do think it will be a closer game than many expect, but in the end, Wisconsin is just too much for Michigan to handle.
Prediction: Wisconsin 34, Michigan 24