It wasn’t pretty, but the No. 4 Michigan football team emerged from a sluggish defensive battle Saturday with a hard-fought 14-7 victory over No. 8 Wisconsin. The Wolverines appeared to be the better team in the box score and on the field, but a few missteps kept the game close until the very end.
The Daily breaks down the good, the bad and the ugly from Michigan’s first win over a top-10 opponent since 2008.
The Wolverines’ defense continued to prove why it’s one of the best in the country. The front seven held running back Corey Clement and the rest of the Badgers’ run game to just 71 yards on the ground, while the secondary limited quarterback Alex Hornibrook to just 88 passing yards. Wisconsin’s only touchdown came after they started with great field position due to a crucial mistake by Michigan (more on that later).
The Wolverines’ talented duo of senior cornerbacks, Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, turned in their most complete performance of the season. Stribling was arguably the most consistent player on defense all day, recording two pass breakups and two crucial interceptions as Wisconsin opted to target him more often than Lewis. When the Badgers finally changed course, though, Lewis validated their fears by sealing the game with a one-handed interception that reached No. 2 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight didn’t have his best game, but he came through when it counted, connecting on a 46-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior Amara Darboh with eight minutes remaining. After struggling to consistently complete big plays downfield, Speight redeemed himself with what ultimately became the game-winning score.
Despite facing a stout Wisconsin defense, Michigan’s running backs turned in a solid performance on the ground, totaling 130 yards — and that includes Speight’s 30 yards lost due to sacks. Redshirt junior Ty Isaac provided a burst of energy with six yards per carry, and freshman Chris Evans took advantage of a huge hole with a 22-yard burst of speed as part of the Wolverines’ first touchdown drive.
The game ended up being decided by seven points, but that was largely because Michigan left nine points on the board. Fifth-year senior Kenny Allen missed field goals from 31 and 43 yards in the second quarter, and sophomore Ryan Tice missed a 40-yard attempt in the third. The Wolverines were able to pull out the win anyway, but Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh hopes a dependable kicker will emerge after an open competition this week.
Speight made the big play when it counted, but his insistence on extending plays under pressure could have come back to hurt the Wolverines. He nearly threw an interception on a jump ball to sophomore wide receiver Grant Perry in the second quarter, and he was picked off by cornerback Derrick Tindal in the third for a 46-yard return that set up the Badgers’ only touchdown. Harbaugh defended his quarterback’s decision-making, though, saying that his only real mistake was taking a sack in the third quarter instead of throwing the ball away. The nine-yard loss on that play forced Tice to attempt a long field goal from the right hashmark, which he missed.
Michigan had numerous drives stall out after the first quarter, mostly due to Wisconsin’s physical defense. Badgers linebacker T.J. Watt — yes, J.J.’s brother — victimized the Wolverines’ offense with 11 tackles, two sacks and a tackle for loss. And when it did have a big opportunity, Michigan often failed to take advantage of it, like when Darboh dropped a key third-down pass early in the fourth quarter before ultimately redeeming himself later.
For the second straight game, a cart came onto the field and half of the Wolverines’ bench huddled around an injured teammate. After fifth-year senior cornerback Jeremy Clark tore his anterior cruciate ligament last week, sophomore left tackle Grant Newsome took a hit to the knee in the second quarter Saturday and went down. Newsome waved off the cart and was helped to the locker room by trainers, but after the game, Harbaugh said his injury would likely require surgery.