MADISON In a season of close calls and bizarre endings, Michigan (6-1 Big Ten, 8-2 overall) squeaked by Wisconsin (3-4, 5-6), 20-17 to remain tied with Illinois atop the Big Ten.
With the score tied at 17, Michigan lined up to punt on fourth-and-10 after taking a delay of game penalty and letting the clock wind down to 24 seconds.
On the Hayden Epstein punt, Wisconsin put everyone on the line rather than put a returner back to receive the punt. But downfield on the Wisconsin 15-yard line, the ball bounced off the Badgers” Brett Bell, who was defending Brandon Williams. Quickly aware of the situation, Williams picked up the ball and ran into the endzone.
Bell claimed he did not know that the Badgers were not planning on returning the punt.
“I wasn”t informed. They just said “punt return” and I went out there,” Bell said.
Unbeknownst to Williams, the ball cannot be advanced on such a play in college football.
“I knew that if the ball hit the jammer you could pick it up I thought I could score,” Williams said.
The play set up a game-winning field goal by Epstein that narrowly flew inside the left goal post.
“It was a little too close for comfort, but the ref”s arms went up and gave us three,” Epstein said.
Wisconsin had a chance to go up by three just a minute earlier, but kicker Mark Neuser just missed a 36-yard field goal wide right to give the ball back to Michigan. Neuser is 7-of-10 in field goals on the season.
The Badgers” defense dominated the Wolverines the entire game, but especially in the second half, in which Michigan managed just 54 yards of total offense. It was statistically Michigan”s worst offensive game of the season after averaging 373 yards per game in the previous nine games.
The Wolverines” Marquise Walker was held to just four catches for 14 yards while quarterback John Navarre was just 11-for-24, good for only 58. He also threw a touchdown and an interception.
“When they make it impossible for you to run it, you have be able to throw it and our biggest problem today is that we just couldn”t throw it,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said.
Miscues on special teams plagued the Badgers for the entire game and allowed the Wolverines to put points on the board on a subpar offensive day. Ten of Michigan”s 17 points were the result of blocked punts.
“Special teams contributed a great deal. We put a lot of time and effort into all aspects,” Epstein said. “The punt blocking has just been incredible this year.”
With the score tied at seven, freshman cornerback Marlin Jackson ran in untouched to block a Wisconsin punt and return it 43 yards for the touchdown. The Wolverines also kicked a field goal after a one-handed punt block by Walker gave them the ball on the Badgers” five-yard line. On the possession, a B.J. Askew touchdown was called back after a holding penalty.
Michigan”s first touchdown came in the first quarter on a 50-yard drive that resulted in a play-action pass to tight end Deitan Dubuc from one yard out.
By contrast, the two Wisconsin touchdowns came at the end of drives of 80 and 71 yards. The Badgers were led by running back Anthony Davis, who rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown.
Wisconsin also suffered from an inability to pass the ball. It gained 133 yards in the air and its leading receiver, Lee Evans, had just three catches for 31 yards.
With the loss, Wisconsin cannot go to a bowl game for the first time since 1995.
For Michigan, the Big Ten title and the opportunity for a BCS bowl berth comes down to this coming weekend as Illinois defeated Ohio State 34-22 in Columbus on Saturday. A Michigan win against the Buckeyes this Saturday or an Illini loss to Northwestern on Thursday would guarantee the Wolverines a BCS berth.