Amidst the packed crowd and exuberant student section dressed in all white, there was an unrequited tension within Camp Randall Stadium. Both teams knew that this game would likely steer the trajectory of their seasons. A win could set the pace for the Big Ten title race. A few statements were made today by the UW-Madison Badgers as they defeated the Michigan Wolverines 35-14.
This clash was a battle of styles with the ground game of UW attempting to overpower the air raid of Michigan. With a 28-0 lead at halftime, it was clear that the Badgers had established command. Although their play did most of the talking, the squad was not shy about their performance against Jim Harbaugh’s highly touted team.
“This is one of the best teams in the country,” Cornerback Faion Hicks said.
An aggressive wave spread through the Badgers that was set on the first drive with Coach Paul Chryst electing to go for it on 4th & 1. The team converted and scored a few plays later. The no-holds-barred approach was embraced by the players and fans. In these types of games, it’s about who wants it more and the Badgers dug their heels in all day.
“Our job as coaches is to give our guys a scheme…something that gives them a chance and they gotta make it come to life,” Chryst said.
“I loved the call and it was an aggressive mindset from the beginning and I feel like the whole team really bought into it and it was awesome,” Quarterback Jack Coan said.
This mentality was evident within the team and showed through the rushing touchdowns by Coan, Running Back (RB) Garrett Groshek and consistent play by RB Nakia Watson when star RB Jonathan Taylor was taken out of the game for cramps midway through the second quarter. It’s impossible to dismiss the quality Taylor brings to the field when on it, but a one-dimensional team with a predictable offense can only go so far and Chryst is aware of the need for squad depth to show up when called upon.
“Guys made plays when he wasn’t going,” Chyrst said.“We’re fortunate to have a back like JT. Everyone knows that, but if we’re going to be the best offense we can be, it’s going to take a lot more than that.”
The offense wasn’t the only unit going hard in the paint for the Badgers. After allowing a 68 yd pass from Patterson on the first defensive snap, Faion Hicks could have slowed down when he saw the chunks of yardage Michigan had gotten. Instead, Hicks sprinted to stop the Michigan receiver at the four-yard line. A few plays later, Hicks forced a Michigan fumble that the Badgers recovered. The only thing going through his mind was that they couldn’t allow a score. That was the energy the Badgers maintained the entire game. There was no way they would let Michigan believe they should be playing on the same field as them.
Last year’s debacle against the Wolverines was in the back of the Badgers’ minds, but this is a new year with a new team and every player showed it. Hicks was humbled by the beatdown from a year prior and made it a point to show how much he improved. While he knows how good of a team was on the other side of the line of scrimmage, nothing would stop him from bringing the hammer down.
“Those guys said they were going to come and make a statement, but it fired us up and we got it going,” Hicks said.
Michigan shuffled through their quarterback deck, benching Patterson for Dylan McCaffrey at the beginning of the second half and then putting the third-string Joe Milton in when McCaffrey suffered a concussion. Patterson returned and got a little rhythm throwing two quarters in the fourth quarter, but it proved too little too late.
The intensity was already high with conference stakes and having former high school teammates playing against each other, but Michigan QB Shea Patterson’s comments during the week that the Wolverines were “looking to make a statement” truly lit a fire under the Badgers that burned its way to a 35-0 lead midway through the third quarter.
With seven minutes left in the game, Jonathan Taylor had more yards by himself than Michigan had in total as a team. Taylor finished with 23 carries for 203 yds and 2 TDs, but he was most proud of the team performance.
“We wanted to show that it’s a tough environment to play in Camp Randall. You’re not going to walk in here and get an easy win,” Taylor said.
Even with his sudden departure, Taylor was excited to see Watson and Groshek step up and soak up their spotlight.
“We’re trying to be the best running back group in the country,” Taylor said. “Every running back in that room has a mindset of ‘we gotta make sure we’re on our Ps and Qs’”
Defensive End Matt Henningsen, who came up with big play after big play, was not surprised at the clamps they put on Michigan and expects this type of dominance every week. From his pass breakup to force a Michigan interception that Burrell recovered to be a nightmare for any offensive linemen he faces, Henningsen plans to maintain this level.
“We want to take the will out of our opponents,” Henningsen said. ”We want to do everything we can to punch them in the mouth play after play after play.”
Even the Badger student section got in on the act with “Overrated” chants ringing through the stadium towards the Wolverines after Leo Chenal’s burst to the end-zone made a resounding 35-0 score. Whether the players care or not, this domination of a highly-touted Michigan will raise eyebrows. After this performance against a top-15 team in a Big Ten opener, the Badgers didn’t just earn respect. They demanded it.
“We try to focus on staying forever hungry,” Orr said. “It might change what the critics say about us. It might add more cameras, but it’s not going to change anything we do at all.”
Despite losing the goose egg on the scoreboard he desperately coveted, the team’s defensive leader can sleep well knowing that he had a fumble recovery and Michigan couldn’t convert a third down all day. Orr’s plans to dominate whoever dares to pad up next to the Badgers will be put to the test again & again throughout this season, but he believes that the tight-knit is ready.
“This is truly a family. The love that we have for each other is what’s helping us play so great,” Orr said.
While Coach loves the way his guys competed, he maintains that there’s not one guy on this team that can’t keep working and getting better.
“You can’t define who you are until the season ends,” Chryst said.
This is only the first hurdle in a highly spirited Big Ten conference schedule, but the Badgers are looking ready for anything that comes their way.