ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Despite having identical undefeated records, neither No. 4-ranked Michigan or No. 8-ranked Wisconsin has reached anything close to a ceiling through the first four games of the 2016 season.
However, they’re both coming off decisive victories, suggesting that there could be a few more in the distance for the Wolverines and/or Badgers. Holiday-season, prime-time wins. Maybe.
Meanwhile, Saturday, the 66th meeting (UM 49-14-1) marks their first meeting as top-10 programs.
Both Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh and Badgers coach Paul Chryst share a 30-year bond of friendship. They know each other’s style. Considering the amount of respect among the families, it’s a big deal for both guys.
They’re both looking to win a Big Ten championship, too.
Saturday should serve as the stage for a classic, punch-you-in-mouth kind of game, headlined by two of the league’s most physical defenses. Michigan vs. Wisconsin might even be the most rattling thus far in the Big Ten.
According to Team Rankings, the Wolverines have the No. 7-ranked and the Badgers have the No. 8-ranked total defense.
Teams have been lucky to score twice against either one; the Badgers romped Michigan State, 30-6, and the Wolverines ran over Penn State, 49-10, this past weekend.
Saturday will be a chance for Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown to flex his muscle.
“Whenever you’re playing a very physical opponent, a very good opponent, then yeah — there’s an opportunity to show what you can do out there as a football player… I’ve always believed that,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Good football players — that’s kind of why they get together for games.
Good football players going against each other to show who the best is… That’s the best thing about football — that competition.”
Since Harbaugh’s arrival, there has been a re-emphasis on power football in Ann Arbor. Since Dec. 30, 2014, tight ends and fullbacks have been thrust into the spotlight, no longer seldom mentioned pieces or afterthoughts. Wolverines fifth-year fullback Khalid Hill has prepared for the potential slugfest, fully realizing that the FB/TE tandem could heavily influence the outcome.
“I’m looking forward it and to get a challenge,” said Hill, Michigan’s leading scorer with four touchdowns. “To go against Wisconsin is something that we’ll have to work at in practice — have a good week in practice, and you know, get ready for a hard-fought battle this weekend — it’s not going to be easy.”
At 6-foot-2 and 263 pounds, Hill has become one of Michigan’s top dual-threat tight ends this year. He blocks. He catches and scores. He blocks some more.
No stranger to contact. And he expects the same favor in return from the Badgers, who relentlessly punished the Spartans from all angles in East Lansing.
“I feel like every team is going to come out and play their hardest against us,” Hill said. “I feel like Wisconsin is definitely going to bring,if you want to say, extra ‘hit’ or a harder hit — they probably will, you know. But we’re not afraid of getting hit — we get hit every day. You get back up, keep going at it.”
Harbaugh doesn’t detail weekly game plans. And really, Hill wasn’t in the mood to do so on Monday, either. Instead, he laid out a few bullet points: Saturday probably won’t feature a lot through the air, he expects a grimy game in the trenches, and every hit and every speck of space could end up being the deciding factor.
Tight ends. Fullbacks. Short game. Ground game. Both teams run similar sets, and both know how to drain the other side.
With that said, Saturday will be all about the last man standing. Michigan’s favored by 10, but Wisconsin just throttled its defending-league-champion neighbor.
“I feel like running the ball is going to be huge,” Hill said. “It”ll be a task on the running group, but they’re ready for it.”