The first top-10 matchup in Ann Arbor since 2003 was expected to be a defensive showdown, and with the sun setting over Michigan Stadium in the fourth quarter, it looked like a showdown in which the fourth-ranked Wolverines might come up short.
Despite outgaining No. 8 Wisconsin by nearly 200 yards, Michigan had struggled to get anything going after scoring a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter. The Badgers had stopped every drive, sacked and picked off redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight and capitalized on three missed field goals to put the Wolverines’ backs against the wall.
But Speight reached back for one big play — a 46-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior wide receiver Amara Darboh with 7:56 to play — and it put Michigan back on top, 14-7. And as it has all season, the Wolverines’ defense took care of the rest.
Michigan stopped Wisconsin three times in the final quarter — capped by a one-handed interception by senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis with two minutes remaining — allowing the Wolverines to hang on for the victory, their first win over a top-10 opponent since upsetting the then-ninth-ranked Badgers in 2008.
“I thought our secondary was really good (and) our defensive line was lights out,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “It was a game ball for (defensive coordinator) Don Brown kind of a game. Very impressed with our defense, with our defensive coaches and with the character of our defensive players and their talent. A-plus-plus.”
The game was back-and-forth from the start, beginning with three straight three-and-outs before the Wolverines got on the board first on an 11-play, 77-yard drive that started near the end of the first quarter. It was highlighted by a bizarre sequence where Michigan’s offense re-defined the term “I-formation” by lining up in a 10-man straight line under center on the last play of the first quarter. (They call the formation “Train,” Harbaugh later said.)
The Wolverines readjusted right before the snap, with senior running back De’Veon Smith taking the handoff and pushing the pile to the 1-yard line. Redshirt junior fullback Khalid Hill punched it into the end zone for his fifth touchdown of the season on the next play, giving Michigan a 7-0 lead.
After that, Speight found himself under constant pressure, narrowly avoiding multiple sacks and throwing a near-interception to safety Luben Figaro in the second quarter. That karma would eventually catch up to Speight, as he was picked off by cornerback Derrick Tindal in the third quarter to give the Badgers the ball in Michigan territory. They quickly capitalized, with Hornibrook finding running back Dare Ogunbowale on a 17-yard wheel route for a game-tying touchdown.
Harbaugh absolved Speight of the blame for both of those throws, though, saying the quarterback’s only real mistake came when he took a sack in the third quarter instead of throwing the ball away.
“He was making good decisions,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know how many decisions that is in a game, but if you make one bad one, (you’re) probably in the high 90s, percentage-wise.”
The Wolverines had numerous chances to seize momentum earlier in the game, but they allowed kicking troubles and untimely penalties to stop them cold. Fifth-year senior kicker Kenny Allen missed both a 31- and 43-yard field goal in the first half, and sophomore Ryan Tice missed a 40-yarder when he took over for an attempt in the third quarter.
Michigan also took a number of key penalties on punt formations, and it wasted prime field position late in the first half when it recorded both an illegal motion penalty and offensive pass interference on a deep pass to fifth-year senior wide receiver Jehu Chesson.
The Wolverines managed to keep the game tied until the fourth quarter, though, and ultimately outgained the Badgers, 349-159. It also benefited from a stellar game from senior cornerback Channing Stribling, who had two interceptions and two pass breakups.
Thanks to the defense’s steadiness and the offense’s sudden resurgence, Michigan now has a signature win under its belt after four straight blowouts.
“Any time you can beat a top-10 team and kind of let the world know that we’ve got something going on here … it’s special,” said redshirt junior running back Ty Isaac. “It’s not like fluke stuff.”
Injury update: The Wolverines lost sophomore left tackle Grant Newsome to an apparent knee injury in the second quarter. Newsome waved off the cart and walked to the locker room with the help of trainers, but Harbaugh said he would likely require an unspecified “surgical procedure.” Redshirt sophomore Juwann Bushell-Beatty replaced him at left tackle.