MADISON — The narratives entering Saturday’s game were plentiful.
Despite five different opportunities, the Michigan football team hadn’t won at Camp Randall Stadium since 2001. In those matchups, Wisconsin outscored the Wolverines by a combined 75 points, and in the last two meetings specifically, the Badgers emphatically exposed Michigan’s greatest flaws, from its weak run defense to its inept rushing offense.
Each time, it seemed, the worst version of the Wolverines would arrive in Madison, take a punch and fall helplessly to the mat.
On Saturday, Michigan punched back.
The Wolverines (5-0 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) trounced Wisconsin (1-3, 0-2), 38-17, earning a marquee road win for coach Jim Harbaugh’s rebuilding program. Unlike in previous years, Michigan managed to absorb the Badgers’ best shots while remaining in control the whole way.
“They did beat us the past two years,” junior receiver Cornelius Johnson said. “… So we really wanted to make sure we put a special emphasis on this one, to come into their building and make sure we put something good on tape.”
Somewhat surprisingly, many of the Wolverines’ best strikes came through the air. After averaging a meager 164 passing yards per game going into Saturday, Michigan and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis recognized that Wisconsin would try to stop the run — it was best in the country in doing so.
So, from the start, Gattis opted for a closer balance between the run and the pass. Despite some early hiccups, junior quarterback Cade McNamara boosted the offense when needed.
He had help from sophomore receiver Roman Wilson, who used his speed to create separation where he hadn’t in previous games. On a 3rd-and-14 midway through the first quarter, McNamara hit Wilson along the sideline for a 12-yard gain, then found him again on a quick out to convert on fourth down. A play later, McNamara connected with junior receiver Cornelius Johnson on a perfectly executed flea flicker to open up the scoring. A pair of field goals from senior kicker Jake Moody extended that lead.
“I think the difference in us this year is that, when we’re expecting to be in a fight, we’re confident we’re gonna win that fight,” McNamara said. “And I think this team didn’t panic at all. When the fight came to us, we attacked back.”
Still, the Badgers didn’t lie down. Despite finding practically no offense for much of the first two quarters, the usually unreliable arm of quarterback Graham Mertz led Wisconsin to a field goal and one touchdown drive that cut Michigan’s lead to three at the half. For the first time all game, the Wolverines appeared vulnerable.
In the second half, though, Michigan came out swinging. After a 38-yard deep ball to Wilson set up a 1st-and-goal from the 10, freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy ultimately snuck it in for the Wolverines’ second touchdown of the game.
“It’s a tribute to our brotherhood, man,” junior edge rusher David Ojabo said. “We came into the locker room (at halftime), and we just said like, ‘Let’s not panic. We got each other’s back through ups and downs.’ We really weren’t worried.”
From there, it was Wisconsin that failed to recover. After a blistering sack from Michigan junior safety Daxton Hill knocked a struggling Mertz out of the game, the Badgers’ already poor offense slipped into full-on anemia, tallying two punts, a fumble and an interception from Hill on its next four drives.
The Wolverines’ offense, meanwhile, continued to deliver blows — first with a field goal after the fumble recovery and then with a back-corner touchdown pass to Johnson that sealed the victory.
“They had that kind of vibe about them from when they first stepped in the locker room when we got there early this morning,” Harbaugh said. “The vibe was they weren’t gonna be denied, and they weren’t gonna flinch when punches were thrown.”
Even if Wisconsin isn’t the marquee opponent it normally is — Mertz’s struggles throughout the season have mostly derailed the team’s offense — Michigan’s win still represents a turning point for the program. The Badgers entered this game as the nation’s top rushing defense; the Wolverines were an offense intent on keeping the ball on the ground. It was clear Michigan would face a barrage of quick hits.
For what feels like the first time in forever, the Wolverines dealt some knockout blows of their own. We’ll see how they deal with the heavyweights later on.