Coming into its game against Michigan, Wisconsin knew it would have to shut down tight end Bennie Joppru if it was to stop the Wolverines’ passing game.
“We knew he was a big part of their offense and we wanted to stop him,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove said.
The Badgers thought that Joppru was so much of a problem that they assigned a defensive back to guard him one-on-one. Redshirt freshman Dontez Sanders, who up until the Michigan game had appeared in just one other game as a defensive back, manned-up on Joppru for most of the game.
According to Sanders, who began his career as a wide receiver, the coaches saw something in practice that sparked their interest in him.
“In practice I would be in on bump-and-run a lot so the coaches just threw me in there,” Sanders said.
Due to Sanders’ lack of game experience, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez made the defensive scheme easy for him to understand.
“You don’t want to get things too complicated with Dontez. I just told him what number to cover and he did a pretty good job.” Alvarez said.
“It was hard to learn at first and I had a hard time grasping the concepts, but now I am learning it easier,” Sanders said.
While Wisconsin held Michigan to just 136 yards passing, Joppru tied a career high with seven receptions for 45 yards. Three of his catches came on 16-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that soaked up over eight minutes of the clock.
“We were moving the ball just fine on them in the first half,” Joppru said. “We came out (in the second half) and put something together.”
That was the most significant impact Joppru had on the game. Though Joppru did have his seven receptions, he was not the safety net that Michigan and quarterback John Navarre had come to rely upon. Joppru has seemed to find a way to get Michigan big third-down receptions, but against the Badgers he did not have the same success.
Of Joppru’s seven catches, only one came on third down – a short dump-off pass for four yards on 3rd-and-10 during Michigan’s scoring drought in the second quarter.
The remainder of Joppru’s receptions came on first and second down, resulting in just one new set of downs – a 12-yard reception in the third quarter.
The game was a contrast to how Joppru has been utilized this season. Rather than notching the first down himself, his receptions set up second-and-third-and-short situations in which the Wolverines had fewer than four yards to go.
In the end, it likely did not matter as Michigan’s 224 yards rushing were enough to defeat the Badgers. But the play of Sanders on Joppru was a reason why Navarre suffered through his worst game this season, completing 19-of-28 passes for 136 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
The struggles of the passing game caused the Wolverines to refocus on the running game.
“We are taking a lot of pride in running the ball,” Joppru said.
With his seven receptions, Joppru remains Michigan’s second-leading receiver with 45 receptions this season behind Braylon Edwards (53). He is now just six catches away from setting Michigan’s single-season tight end receptions record. Joppru trails only Jim Mandich, father of redshirt freshman tight end Mike Mandich, whose 50 catches set the team record in 1969.