MADISON — No matter who you asked, there was a phrase that reverberated through the Wisconsin press room Saturday afternoon.
“We just played Wisconsin football.”
There’s a very specific style the Badgers are known for. It’s physical, bruising football, with a stout running game, a steady stream of overpowering offensive linemen and a lockdown defense. Done right, every opponent slowly has the life sucked out of it. For years, they haven’t deviated, and there’s a reason: it works.
It certainly worked Saturday. The linemen opened up gaping holes for Jonathan Taylor to burst through. Wisconsin ran three times as much as Michigan and gained 319 more yards on the ground. The defense pitched a shutout through the third quarter and wound up with a blowout, 35-14.
As the Wolverines were on the other side of the stadium, talking about how they didn’t yet have an identity, the Badgers made one thing clear: they know exactly who they are. Last year, in a 38-13 Michigan win, the Wolverines did their thing and it showed. This time, it was Wisconsin’s turn to return the favor.
“Last year is not who we was,” said Wisconsin safety Reggie Pearson. “And coming in this year, every opponent that we get, break them down from first quarter to fourth.”
This was a team assured of itself from beginning to end, a team that noticed from the first drive — when the Badgers went for it on fourth down at their own 34 — that the guys on the other side weren’t quite the same way.
Back on Tuesday, senior quarterback Shea Patterson tried to make people feel the same way about Michigan. “We’re gonna go out there and make a statement,” he said, and Wisconsin was listening. The Badgers had something of their own to say.
Linebacker Chris Orr told his team about Patterson’s proclamation all week, preparing to give him a test he didn’t see coming. When asked after the game who made a statement, Orr’s response went without saying: “We did.”
“We were just trying to make a statement that we were gonna dominate in the line of scrimmage up front and you prepare for that,” Taylor said. “You know coming in here, the University of Wisconsin, they’re gonna run the ball.”
Wisconsin proved that what Patterson had so confidently said was just a bunch of empty words, that you can’t make a statement without knowing exactly what that statement is going to be.
After the Badgers converted that first fourth down, they marched down the field, bludgeoning the Wolverines’ defense with Taylor, scoring a touchdown and eating clock. Wisconsin put Michigan on watch, showed the Wolverines this was its identity. Then it went back to that, again and again.
When Taylor went down with cramps in the second quarter, it didn’t matter. There were other running backs waiting in the wings, and Michigan couldn’t stop them, either. The Badgers went all-in on their offensive line, sometimes putting seven or eight linemen in on short yardage, daring the Wolverines to stop the run and knowing they wouldn’t. The defense knew it could force an offense to be one-dimensional, and it did that, too. This time, it was by stopping the run and forcing Michigan to pass, knowing that on third- and fourth-and-long, it could only do so much.
Wisconsin fans chanted “overrated” two separate times, knowing fully that the Wolverines weren’t what they said they were. But the Badgers like to think it was more than just that.
“I’m sure people would say that Michigan lost the game instead of us winning the game, so we don’t care about that,” Orr said. “We’re gonna have the same goal next week and the week after that until the end of the season, just dominating whoever we line up against.”
Michigan didn’t have an identity Saturday. Wisconsin did.
The difference has never been more clear.