All week in practice, defensive line coach Steve Stripling warned his players that containing Wisconsin’s rushing attack would be challenging. The Wolverines boasted the nation’s No. 1 rush defense, but they hadn’t faced a run-first offense like that of the Badgers in any of their first three games.
So the question going into the game was: How would Michigan fare against Wisconsin’s bruising tailback and imposing offensive line?
Stripling had little reason to worry.
The sixth-ranked Wolverines turned in another dominant performance, holding Wisconsin to just 12 net rushing yards en route to a 27-13 victory in their Big Ten opener.
“It’s a great feeling,” tailback Mike Hart said. “They were getting three-and-outs, three-and-outs. . You’re always aware of it on the bench. Because if you come off and real quick you’ve got to go right back in, you know they’re playing great.”
On Saturday, great was an understatement.
Starting in the second quarter, eight consecutive Wisconsin drives ended with a punt. Seven of those were three-and-outs.
Michigan notched 10 tackles for loss, costing the Badgers 54 yards.
The Big Ten’s leading rusher coming into the game, Wisconsin tailback P.J. Hill, finished the day with 54 yards on 20 carries. In the second half, the Badgers rushed 11 times for just four yards.
Saturday represented the latest chapter in Michigan’s defensive rebirth this season. Last year, the Wolverines allowed eight running backs to gain at least 100 yards on the ground. In four games this season, Michigan has given up just 74 total rushing yards.
“The way they’re stopping the run – Wisconsin is a powerhouse running team,” said quarterback Chad Henne, who completed 18-of-25 passes for 211 yards. “If teams need to throw the ball every down, then our defense is going to come up with some stops.”
Which is exactly what Michigan did, except for a small slip-up on the Badgers’ first offensive drive. Three minutes into the game, Wisconsin gained possession at its 40-yard line when cornerback Allen Langford intercepted a bobbled pass intended for receiver Mario Manningham, the first of Henne’s three interceptions.
From there, the Badgers marched down the field for their only touchdown of the day, a 29-yard pass to a wide-open Hill.
“We were kind of stiff out there,” defensive tackle Alan Branch said. “Once we started playing the second series and started having fun, we just got back in our groove and played good defense.”
Defensive end LaMarr Woodley said Michigan (1-0 Big Ten, 4-0 overall) was overrunning the ball on the first drive, giving Hill open running lanes. Once the Wolverines adjusted, they shut down Wisconsin’s run game and forced the Badgers to throw the ball, something they rarely do.
Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco finished with 236 yards and one touchdown on 22-of-42 passing. But Stocco had to deal with Michigan defenders in his face for much of the afternoon. The Wolverines notched four sacks in the contest, giving them 16 on the season, the nation’s third-highest total. Three of the sacks came from defensive linemen (Branch, Woodley and defensive end Tim Jamison).
“It’s nice to see those kind of numbers on the rushing yardage, but I think the key thing is that we brought a lot of four-man pressures today,” Stripling said. “We were able to get some pressure on the quarterback by just bringing four guys.”
Michigan’s stout defensive play made up for an offensive attack that showed only glimpses of last week’s electrifying display against Notre Dame. Manningham caught seven balls for 113 yards, including two touchdown passes, giving him five touchdowns in the last two games. Receiver Adrian Arrington broke out with 79 yards on four receptions.
Wisconsin (0-1, 3-1) stopped Hart’s streak of 100-yard rushing games at three; the junior gained 91 yards on 23 carries but did score his fifth touchdown of the season.
The Wolverines’ balanced offense benefited from great field position throughout the game, thanks to the defense making quick work of the Badgers and Steve Breaston’s stellar day returning punts.
But in the end, this victory couldn’t start until the run was stopped.
“I think we took a major step today because you’re not going to find a bigger offensive line,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “I thought our defense was outstanding. I don’t know if you’d call it a personality; I just call it Michigan defense.”