MADISON — Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez has said it time and time again — the Wolverines are a different team with Brandon Minor in the game.
The senior tailback has battled a high ankle sprain all year, and he suffered a bruised shoulder during his three-touchdown performance against Purdue. Those injuries forced Minor to disappear after just seven carries for 26 yards against Wisconsin.
Minor was just one lowly component of the Wolverines’ dismal rushing attack Saturday. The Wolverines had just 71 yards on 32 carries and went without a rushing touchdown for the first time since losing to Michigan State on Oct. 3.
“After that first touchdown last week, (Minor) was kind of hurt a little bit,” senior defensive end Brandon Graham said. “He was just telling me how I wish I could go for you, but I was like, ‘Don’t worry, we got people that’s gonna pick up where you left off.’ ”
One of those to pick up in Minor’s place was freshman Vincent Smith.
Michigan fans have seen little of the 5-foot-6 tailback during the conference season. Excluding his 17 carries against Delaware State, Smith had just 15 carries heading into Wisconsin.
But Saturday, the pint-sized Smith used his versatility and flashiness in Michigan’s productive first half as he pounded away for 26 yards on seven carries.
“For being such a little guy, especially in the Big Ten, you don’t see little backs too often,” freshman quarterback Tate Forcier. “Look at Wisconsin. Twice the size of him. But Vince played great today. He made some key blocks for me. He made some big plays.”
Matched up against the towering Badger defense, Smith’s biggest plays came in the passing game. He gained impressive yards after each catch and tallied six receptions for 55 yards by halftime.
The Pahokee, Fla., native’s most impressive play came when Forcier connected with him on a 21-yard swing pass to tie the score at 7-7 early in the first quarter.
But besides Smith’s unexpected receiving performance and sophomore slot receiver Roy Roundtree’s seven receptions for 56 yards, the Badger defense shut down the Wolverine receivers in the second half. After notching 15 receptions in the first half, Michigan managed just six after the break.
“Our defensive line was active,” Wisconsin defensive lineman O’Brien Schofield said. “Guys were running to the football and making some plays that normally you wouldn’t think a defensive line would make on some screens. Just running to the receivers catching the ball and trying to get in there.”
D-line impressions: Very rarely in college football do you see a team relying solely on its front four to carry its defense.
The Wolverines clearly aren’t moving in that direction under defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. But the performances Michigan are getting upfront from Graham and defensive tackles Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen makes the thought somewhat appealing.
Despite giving up a season-high 45 points to Wisconsin, the trio had career days.
Martin tallied a career-high nine solo tackles, including three for loss. The sophomore stifled Badger quarterback Scott Tolzien on a number of occasions.
Van Bergen’s fumble-recovery-turned-touchdown gave the Wolverines critical points. It was the first recovery turned score since former Wolverine and two-time Super Bowl winner LaMarr Woodley did it against Notre Dame in 2006.
Graham, who is easily the Wolverines’ best player each game, moved into second place for career forced fumbles (seven). He now trails just Woodley (10) for first place.
The Badger defense couldn’t keep Graham out of the pocket throughout the game. His two sacks for 25 yards, four tackles for a loss of 28 yards and his mouth had everyone taking notice.
“They were definitely strong,” Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks said. “They talked a lot of junk too. … (Saying) ‘You can’t hold me. Anybody want to hold me? Somebody better hold me.’ Especially No. 55, Graham, he was messing. But it was a good time.”
Red zone woes: Examining Wisconsin’s 95.1 red zone conversion rate would make any Wolverine fan envious.
One can point to Wisconsin’s old-school, smashmouth offense that works especially well at the goal line.
“Welcome to Wisconsin football,” Badger head coach Bret Bielma said. “That’s what we do. It may not be pretty.”
With Minor limited, the Wolverines couldn’t match the same physicality at the goal line. After going just 2-for-3 in the red zone against Wisconsin, Michigan now finds itself ranked last in the Big Ten with a lowly 68.9 percentage.
“It could be playcalling, you know, it could be really anything,” Forcier said.
The Wolverines’ biggest blow came when Michigan couldn’t convert on a first and goal from the Wisconsin six-yard line late in the first quarter. Michigan’s 19-yard field goal attempt was blocked.
“You want to put those into touchdowns — any time you’re down there, you want to punch it in,” offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said. “It was good to come away with points the second time, but of course you want those extra few points, and we didn’t do that today. We gotta get that down.”
Notes: Brandon Smith started at safety in place of redshirt sophomore Mike Williams and had four tackles. …Obi Ezeh started at linebacker after Kevin Leach started against Illinois and Purdue. … After missing last week’s game against Purdue with back pain, Perry Dorrestein started at right tackle Saturday.