Coming into Saturday’s game against No. 15 Wisconsin, there was one prevailing question: How far has the Michigan football team come since its week one loss to Notre Dame?
Well, there’s your answer. Loud and clear.
The 12-ranked Wolverines (6-1 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) were largely dominant on both sides of the ball Saturday, pummeling their way to a 38-13 win.
“A lot of people have a lot of questions about who we are as a team, our offensive line, our run game, we don’t show up in big games,” said junior running back Karan Higdon. “I think we laid that to rest today.”
Behind a bruising offensive line, Michigan rushed for 320 yards, 81 of which came on a quarterback keeper from junior Shea Patterson on the Wolverines’ second drive of the game. Higdon scored two plays later, grabbing a 7-0 lead with 13:55 left in the second quarter.
Michigan’s trio of quarterbacks — Patterson, freshman Joe Milton and redshirt freshman Dylan McCaffery — totaled 156 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, exploiting linebackers they saw over-pursuing. It was a strategy worked into the gameplan ahead of time.
“If the team is playing undisciplined, we’re going to use that to our advantage. The edges were squeezing in too hard on the inside zone,” said junior safety Josh Metellus. “So Shea felt like he had a chance to pull it, and he did. They kept being undisciplined, so Shea just kept taking advantage of that.”
It can be easy to forget, after the blowout that would later ensue, that the game was tied in the second quarter.
It took just four plays for Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1) to respond to Patterson’s electric run, answering with seeming ease. The Badgers ran three times with Taylor, then handed the ball to wide receiver A.J. Taylor on a reverse, who scored from 33 yards to even the game at seven.
Jonathan Taylor — the nation’s leading per-game rusher at nearly 180 yards — was limited in repetitions moreso than effectiveness. He finished with 101 yards (just 22 in the second half) on 17 carries, averaging 5.9 yards per carry, near his season average of 6.7.
For a moment, it looked like the Wolverines might just glide alongside Patterson and Higdon to a breezy win.
Early, they squandered many of those chances — hardly reflective in the final scoreline.
Redshirt sophomore kicker Quinn Nordin missed two field goals in the first half. Patterson took multiple ill-advised sacks that either took Michigan out of field goal range or killed the momentum of a drive. Michigan attempted a questionable gadget play with Milton in an ultimately scoreless drive. After an interception by junior safety in the middle of the second quarter, Michigan’s offense stalled.
In doing so, the Wolverines let the Badgers hang around for a bit — heading to halftime only up 13-7 — but they never trailed the game. Despite repeatedly knocking on the door, the Wolverines couldn’t quite bust the game open.
Until the second half, when that door came flying off.
Bailed out by two drive-saving penalties, including a roughing-the-snapper call on a punt, Patterson scored on another quarterback keeper to open the half, this time from seven yards out.
Michigan’s control on the game never waned form there. Playing from behind, Wisconsin’s offense struggled to move the ball in chunks. Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook looked skittish in the pocket all night, never establishing any sort of rhythm.
Hornibrook finished the day 7-for-20 for 100 passing yards and with quite a few more bruises.
And on the flip side, Michigan’s offensive line displayed just how far it has come as a unit since Notre Dame on Sept. 1. The Wolverines were physically dominant for a large potion of the game, aiding an impressive performance; the Wisconsin run defense came into the game averaging 130 rushing yards per game.
“Each player, you could point to that — (Jon) Runyan, (Ben) Bredeson, Cesar (Ruiz), Michael Onwenu, Juwann Bushell-Beatty — they’re all playing their best football,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “They’re playing really well together.”
Added Higdon: “There’s no further question that we’ve got the best offensive line in the country.”
With 9:55 left in the game, Wisconsin clinging to the faintest hope of life, Lavert Hill put an exclamation point on a destructive win, snatching a Hornibrook pass attempt with one hand and running 21 yards for a touchdown.
“Every game is a statement victory,” said junior linebacker Josh Uche. “It’s win or go home from here on out, until the end of the season — until the championship games.”
What was that statement made today?
“That Michigan is here, here to stay,” Metellus said. “From week one we fell short, but we bounced back, we can fight through adversity, this is a real team, a real program that’s going to keep aggressive throughout the season.”
From the rushing attack to Patterson to the defense and in between, the Wolverines stamped their convincing win — and asserted themselves firmly in the thick of the Big Ten title race.