On its first drive Saturday, Wisconsin rode its Heisman-candidate running back all the way down the field. On Michigan’s, it handed the ball to a converted defensive lineman who didn’t have a carry this year.
Jonathan Taylor scored a touchdown. Ben Mason lost a fumble. And that one drive was a perfect microcosm of the game as a whole.
The Wolverines came into Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday and got embarrassed, 35-14. The reason for that can be summed up many ways, but one stat was particularly telling: Michigan had 40 yards rushing, Wisconsin had 359.
Two weeks ago against Army, the Wolverines averaged 2.4 yards per carry. This week, they had 2.1. And suddenly, a team once known for its propensity to run the ball couldn’t run the ball.
“First three games we haven’t been able to dictate the game and how we wanted, being able to throw the ball when we want, being able to run the ball,” said fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jon Runyan. “We got into tough situations.”
Junior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey was the Wolverines’ leading rusher. He ran for a game-high nine yards in a meaningless drive right before halftime before leaving with a concussion in the third quarter.
Taylor, meanwhile, gained more yards — 72 — on a touchdown run in the first quarter than Michigan did all game.
“When you play against us, we’re gonna stop the run,” said Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr. “We’re gonna force you to play a one-dimensional offense, we’re gonna get after your quarterback and create turnovers.”
That’s exactly what the Badgers did.
When you think of the Wolverines having a one-dimensional offense, you’re probably thinking of one of the many big games in past years where Michigan ran the ball and ran it again, eschewing downfield passing and getting nowhere. Saturday, it was the exact opposite.
The Wolverines did have some success passing — actually finishing with 259 yards to Wisconsin’s 128. Senior quarterback Shea Patterson had five completions of over 20 yards, including a 68-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Ronnie Bell, and another that was originally ruled a catch but controversially overturned.
Instead, the Badgers stopped the run in its tracks and forced Michigan into passing downs. After Mason’s red-zone fumble, the running game was feeble, all semblance of confidence gone. The offensive line struggled to open up holes against Wisconsin’s stout defensive front. And the fact that freshman running back Zach Charbonnet, was “limited,” according to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, only made matters worse. The Wolverines turned to sophomore Christian Turner. But unlike Wisconsin, which kept up the ground-and-pound even after Taylor briefly left the game due to cramps in the second quarter, Turner was quiet.
“It’s tough in those second and long, third and long situations when we’re not on the path we want to be on,” said fifth-year senior offensive tackle Jon Runyan. “And you get those second and long, third and longs it’s tough because you’re thrown off track and you’re gonna have to throw the ball.”
After the game, the Badgers talked about their gameplan, how they were confident they would dominate the line of scrimmage, how they rallied around the other running backs when Taylor left. They used words like “dynamic” and “explosive.”
“Things they did really well, we were unable to do as far as establishing a running game, having the play-action come off of that,” he said. “They blocked better, they tackled better, they had a better plan and executed it extremely well today.”
Last year, a Michigan team with the same All-Big Ten offensive linemen ran for 353 yards — and ran Wisconsin off the field. A year later, it was the polar opposite.
When Harbaugh was asked what he wanted his team’s offensive identity to be, he answered: “To be able to run the ball and be able to throw the ball, both equally and effective and efficient.”
This time, it was the running game that was inexplicably absent.