MADISON — Coming into a matchup with No. 5 Wisconsin — the last undefeated team in the Big Ten — the No. 24 Michigan football team knew it would only have so many opportunities to hit the Badgers before they struck.
The Wolverines learned that lesson in their previous contest against then-No. 2 Penn State. The Nittany Lions opened the game with two consecutive scoring drives, and Michigan was out of the running just five minutes into the race.
Saturday, Michigan gave itself more time by repeatedly pinning Wisconsin back deep, but it couldn’t put itself in the driver’s seat. The Badgers passed the Wolverines late in the third quarter — reaching the end zone on two consecutive possessions — and left them in the dust in a 24-10 loss.
“I feel like the game was kind of in our hands coming into the second half,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. “We just didn’t execute.”
Locked in a 7-7 tie at halftime, Michigan looked to be neck-and-neck in the race with Wisconsin. In the first half of the third quarter, the Wolverines had a chance to turn the corner.
Freshman punter Brad Robbins launched a 36-yard punt that placed the Badgers at their 12-yard line. Starting that far back is dangerous against any defense, but against coordinator Don Brown’s unit, Wisconsin didn’t know what hit it.
Hurst came barreling down the middle and sacked Badger quarterback Alex Hornibrook for a five-yard loss. Then sophomore VIPER Khaleke Hudson sprinted toward Hornibrook’s blind side and nearly brought him down in the end zone, settling for an attempted screen pass that fell incomplete.
And with pressure on him for the third straight time, Hornibrook tossed it away to a receiver who gained just four yards before going out of bounds.
Michigan would have favorable field position after the punt, starting the series at Wisconsin’s 41-yard line. But the Wolverines’ offense failed to capitalize, coming up empty with a false start penalty, two incompletions and a four-yard rush before giving the ball right back to the Badgers.
“I feel like every time we go out there, we just gotta score the ball,” said freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. “No matter who’s in there — quarterbacks, receivers, offensive line, running backs — we’ve gotta score the ball. Period.”
Michigan received another gifted opportunity immediately after that. Hornibrook’s first pass was picked off by sophomore linebacker Devin Bush, who saw the throw coming in his direction the whole way. Though he bobbled the ball while falling down, he held onto it to return possession to the Wolverines at Wisconsin’s 29-yard line.
The series started off well, as Peoples-Jones took an end-around 12 yards into the red zone. But the drive faltered from there, as two rushes went backward and another pass fell incomplete.
Michigan had to settle for a 39-yard field goal, which — given redshirt freshman Quinn Nordin’s recent struggles — was no guarantee. But Nordin managed to exorcise his demons, nailing his first kick since Oct. 14.
The Wolverines might have taken a 10-7 lead, but they were still in danger of a Badger comeback.
After the kickoff return, Wisconsin started at its own 23-yard line, which was its best opening field position of the day to that point. The Badgers promptly took advantage.
On two consecutive possessions, Wisconsin made its move and Michigan couldn’t catch up.
First, Hornibrook threw a 51-yard pass to receiver A.J. Taylor. Then he hit him again for a 24-yard touchdown to put the Badgers in the lead.
After the Wolverines couldn’t answer back, Hornibrook threw a 27-yard pass to receiver Danny Davis. Then running back Kendric Pryor rushed for a 32-yard touchdown to put Wisconsin in cruise control.
“Two big throws and then they got a few runs out too. That ended up being the difference in the game,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “We weren’t able to … get enough plays to win it.”
It wasn’t for a lack of opportunity. Yet, Michigan still couldn’t capitalize this time around.
The Wolverines had a chance to beat the Badgers. But they let it slip away.