No. 4 Michigan faces test versus No.8 Wisconsin

The Sports Xchange

September 28, 2016 at 11:55 am.

Sep 24, 2016; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back De'Veon Smith (4) rushes against Penn State Nittany Lions safety Marcus Allen (2) in the second half at Michigan Stadium. Michigan 49-10. Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 24, 2016; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back De’Veon Smith (4) rushes against Penn State Nittany Lions safety Marcus Allen (2) in the second half at Michigan Stadium. Michigan 49-10. Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan has looked unstoppable on offense this season.

Then again, the lineup of opponents was pretty tame as the Wolverines averaged 52 points — fourth most nationally — while carving their way to four consecutive victories.

But the schedule becomes much more arduous when No. 4 Michigan hosts No. 8 Wisconsin in a Big Ten slugfest on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC) in the first meeting between the programs since 2010.

The Badgers also own a 4-0 mark — both squads are 1-0 in Big Ten play — and have notched signature victories over LSU and Michigan State.

Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh took one look at the Badgers on film and had an immediate reaction.

“Big team,” Harbaugh said. “I’m wondering if the field is going to be wide enough.”

Traveling up and down the field might be the bigger concern for Michigan as Wisconsin ranks seventh nationally in scoring defense (11.8 points per game) and 12th in total defense (277.0 yards per game).

The Badgers are fresh off a dominating 30-6 road victory over Michigan State — a contest in which they forced four turnovers and held the Spartans to 75 rushing yards.

Wisconsin will also arrive in Ann Arbor with a collective chip on its shoulders. The Badgers are bewildered about being tabbed double-digit underdogs, particularly due to the early-season dominance of their defense.

“We don’t have a weak spot,” said junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the younger brother of Houston Texans star J.J. Watt. “I’m not saying that because I’m being cocky. I truly feel like we have 11 guys on defense — plus depth — that can get the job done.”

Watt has a team-leading 4 1/2 sacks and his 18 tackles rank second on the squad behind junior inside linebacker Jack Cichy (23). Junior cornerback Derrick Tindal has contributed two interceptions.

Wisconsin allows just 80.5 yards per game on the ground so something has to give as Michigan rolled up 326 rushing yards in last Saturday’s 49-10 trouncing of Penn State. The Wolverines are averaging 229.8 per game.

Senior running back De’Veon Smith leads Michigan with 259 rushing yards and boasts an impressive 6.6 average per carry.

The Wolverines are also moving the ball well through the air with sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight performing well as a first-year starter. Speight has thrown nine touchdown passes against one interception while completing 63.2 percent of his passes for 875 yards.

Do-it-all sophomore Jabrill Peppers will have an increased role on offense — at his urging — after touching the ball just twice (on rushes of 17 and 7 yards) through the first four games.

“He’s made it clear he wants to do as much as possible,” Harbaugh said. “That isn’t in question. There’s no question that all of our coaches, special teams, offense and defense, they’re like a bull with their paw in the ground, they want Jabrill involved.”

Peppers, who rotates between linebacker and safety on defense, has a staggering 9.5 tackles for losses and ranks second on the Wolverines with 33 tackles. He also leads the Big Ten with a 22.7-yard punt return average and has already had three returns of 50 or more yards (two punts, one kickoff).

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst is impressed and called Peppers “a special football player.”

“He does a lot of the little things that are kind of reserved for when you specialize in it,” Chryst said. “That’s what’s impressive: his knowledge and awareness of the game. Clearly as an athlete, he’s special, but I think the football part of him — the understanding — that’s what to me really makes him. He’s got to be the best player in college football right now.”

The Badgers will account for Peppers each time they snap the ball as redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook aims to follow up a strong first career start.

Hornibrook passed for 195 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Spartans. While he impressed his teammates, Hornibrook’s self-critique wasn’t as glowing.

“I feel like I definitely could have done a lot of things better,” Hornibrook said. “I was happy with the score, for sure. A win’s a win, and it’s awesome. But personally, I feel I could do a lot better.”

The Badgers have won the past two meetings and rolled to a 48-28 victory at Ann Arbor in the 2010 contest when Chryst was the offense coordinator.

“Oh yeah, it was a good day. I liked it,” Chryst recalled. “Means nothing this week.”