MADISON —As Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor galloped free late in the first quarter, shifting left, then speeding into the free terrain of the secondary, it all began to come into focus.
It was one play after Michigan punted the ball back, two plays after a wayward pass floated over the head of junior receiver Tarik Black and three plays after an acrobatic catch by sophomore Ronnie Bell was inexplicably nullified.
Taylor cruised into the end zone for a 72-yard score, extending the Wisconsin lead to 14-0, and effectively pulling the plug on a lifeless Wolverines squad. At the time, the sequence appeared to be a momentous swing. In hindsight, it only expedited the inevitable: a beatdown which will linger for the weeks and months to come.
The Badgers followed Taylor’s lead, riding 203 yards from the All-American running back, and 359 rushing yards overall, to a 35-14 drubbing on Saturday afternoon.
“We just can’t play like this again, cause we’re gonna get our butts kicked every week,” said senior left tackle Jon Runyan after the game. “We just gotta be better.”
To attempt to pin down where it all went wrong would be to descend aimlessly into a black hole. Wisconsin opened the game with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, and never let off the gas. The Badgers scored touchdowns on three of their next five drives, going without a single three-and-out the entire first half. The Michigan offense countered with just 126 yards and two turnovers in the first half. That was all she wrote.
As the half mercifully came to a close, Wisconsin players paraded into the tunnel, while the two teams barked at each other. One side evoked swagger; the other reeked of frustration. One side owned the football field; the other belonged anywhere but.
Both knew the second half served as nothing more than a formality.
“When we went down 14, I looked around at a couple players dropping their heads and stuff,” said senior tight end Nick Eubanks. “We’re going to face adversity. It’s either going to knock us down and keep us there or we’re going to face it and tell it what’s good.”
An offense that supposedly spent the bye week reflecting and rebounding from a disappointing start to the season showed little evidence of the sort. Michigan’s 0-for-10 showing on third down marked the first time the Wolverines failed to convert on third down since at least 1995. After two inconsistent performances to start the year, Patterson completed just 6-of-16 passes in the first half for 96 yards and an interception before being replaced by junior Dylan McCaffery to start the second half. The latter had to leave the game with a concussion late in the quarter. Neither evoked any sense of command.
“I think of it, as a whole group, we don’t have an identity yet,” Eubanks said. “It’s up to us to find our identity even though we’ve got a game coming up next Saturday. We’ve got to find it quick. We know the type of season, this is a long season. It’s a gut check.”
The statistical outcomes paint a picture bleak enough. The defense allowed 359 rushing yards, its worst since a 42-13 loss to Ohio State in 2015. Prior to two late garbage-time touchdowns, the offense mustered one drive over 21 yards — and it ended in a fumble by junior Ben Mason near the goal line on his first carry of the season.
Still, the numbers cannot fully encapsulate the scar this loss will leave. Michigan has now lost its last 15 games on the road at top-15 opponents. It is 1-6 on the road against ranked teams in the Jim Harbaugh era, with Saturday’s just the most recent in the line of lackluster performances in big games.
And that the problems Saturday were so frequent and pervasive means the ultimate blame must be thrust at the hands of one man.
As that figure — once larger than life, now a shell of that — sat at the table facing the media after the game, he looked around for a moment, waiting for someone to break the silence. Finally, provoked by a question, he said the only thing he could.
“We were outplayed. Out-prepared and outcoached,” Harbaugh said. “Outplayed. The whole thing. Both offensively and defensively.
“It was thorough.”