ANN ARBOR — Five consecutive wins has thrust Michigan back into the national conversation.
A win Saturday against perennial Big Ten West Division champion Wisconsin could be the first step in setting up a winner-take-all East Division championship game at Ohio State.
On Sept. 1, it felt like the Jim Harbaugh era was steering toward a precarious position — and it still could. But all of a sudden, the Michigan offense is humming, the defense is its usual stout self, and Harbaugh is poised to become the toast of the town again.
All the Wolverines need to do is beat Wisconsin and carry the momentum through a three-game gauntlet against the Badgers, Michigan State, and Penn State.
Here are three keys to Saturday's primetime showdown:
1) Will Michigan’s offensive line protect Shea Patterson? Wisconsin’s front seven, which traditionally is one of the best in the Big Ten, has been out of sorts this season. The Badgers lost seven starters off last season’s defense and haven’t been able to find the right fit. An assortment of injuries hasn’t helped. In Michigan’s only test of the season, the offensive line underperformed, allowing three sacks, seven tackles for loss, and failing to establish the run game. A chance at redemption is on tap.
2) It’s an opportunity for Patterson to prove he was worth the offseason headlines. If Patterson is given time to make throws, he could cause damage against a Wisconsin secondary that allowed 407 yards to a winless Nebraska team last week, the most passing yards Wisconsin’s ceded in a decade. Wisconsin cornerbacks Deron Harrell and Caesar Williams are injured and safety Scott Nelson will miss the first half because of a targeting penalty. Zach Gentry, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and Nico Collins are proven playmakers.
3) Can Jim Harbaugh enhance his credibility? The biggest win of the Harbaugh era to this point is a victory against then-No. 10 Wisconsin in 2016. A top-10 team, yes. But not particularly impressive. Everything else is empty calories. The Badgers aren’t ranked as high this year, but it’s a more critical game. This was supposed to be a season of redemption for Michigan, and losing to Notre Dame put a damper on that narrative. With these next three games, the Wolverines — and Harbaugh — can get back some of their mojo.
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