Badger Commentary from Michigan Game

Blogger’s note: In case you missed it, here’s what I had to say about last week’s Michigan / Wisconsin game:

This one they wanted.

It was clear from the outset that the Badgers wanted to beat Michigan more than any other team on their schedule this year.

No need for pretty “play ball” wristbands this week; the Wolverines coming to town was all the motivation Bret Bielema’s team needed.

Why the desire to win? Well, it was Senior Day, and many players — including quarterback Tyler Donovan, receiver Paul Hubbard, and punter Ken DeBauche — were playing in their final game at Camp Randall. The day was also noteworthy because the team was retiring former running back Ron Dayne’s number 33. Add to that the fact that the Badgers were trying to win their 14th straight home game as well as go undefeated at home for the second straight season. Not to mention that it’s always fun to beat a team coached by Lloyd Carr, who could be the second most annoying life form on the planet (after Brooke Shields; how exactly does a toothpaste help anyone balance “kids, work, life,” and when was the last time Brooke Shields had work to worry about anyway? “Suddenly Susan’s” been off the air for seven years).

But the biggest motivating factor had to be revenge. Michigan was the only team to defeat Wisconsin last year, and Bielema and his players were out for payback.

And boy, did they get it. Tyler Donovan had a spectacular, better-than-the-stats-make-it-look day. Both Travis Beckum and Paul Hubbard went over 100 yards receiving. Freshman running back Zach Brown — playing for injured back P.J. Hill — had 108 yards rushing and two touchdowns. The Badgers’ defense held the Wolverines to 48 net yards rushing and limited the Michigan quarterbacking tandem of Chad Henne and Ryan Mallett to a miserable 14 completions out of 41 pass attempts. Wisconsin held the ball for 38:15 en route to a 37-21 victory over No. 13 Michigan.

With Minnesota, next week’s opponent in the regular season finale, playing football about as effectively as a busload of retirees, Saturday’s game against Michigan was the Badgers’ last real test this year.

They passed.

But amidst the celebration of Saturday’s victory, Badger fans have to wonder just how badly did Lloyd Carr want to beat Wisconsin? It appeared not that badly.

Facing Ohio State next week with the Big Ten conference title on the line, Carr seemed to treat the Wisconsin game as little more than an exhibition. Despite being in full pads and literally begging to be inserted into the game, star running back Mike Hart did not play. Quarterback Chad Henne was benched after two drives. Both Hart and Henne have been injured this year and injuries were vaguely cited by Carr as reasons they sat out – of Hart, Carr said, “I just didn’t feel like putting him out there,” and of Henne, Carr said that he “didn’t feel right.” But both played last week against in-state rival Michigan State.

Would Hart and Henne’s presence have made a difference in the final score? Quite possibly, especially considering that even without the pair, Michigan was able to cut Wisconsin’s 23-7 lead to 23-21 midway through the fourth quarter. And they did it in record-setting fashion: After failing to connect much of the game, Mallett hit receiver Mario Manningham for a 97-yard touchdown pass, the longest touchdown reception in Michigan history. Just a few minutes later, Adrian Arrington made a beautiful diving catch in the end zone to bring Michigan to within two and make the seventh-largest home crowd in Camp Randall history very nervous indeed — at least those fans not dressed in Michigan Blue.

Despite another setback — the loss of Tyler Donovan to an apparent wrist injury — Wisconsin pulled away late in the fourth quarter, thanks to the two touchdown runs by Zach Brown. The freshman’s first run was set up by a Jack Ikegwuonu interception (his first of the year), and the second by Michigan’s failed, desperate attempt to try to convert a 4th-and-19 from their own two-yard-line. Brown’s ensuing two-yard touchdown run sealed the 37-21 victory for Wisconsin. The 37 points are the most the Badgers have ever scored against Michigan in their 61-game series.

Before the Wolverines’ near-comeback in the fourth quarter, the Badgers had completely dominated Michigan. Key to that domination was the play of Tyler Donovan, and key to his success on Saturday was his remarkable ability to scramble out of trouble to either gain yards on the ground (he finished with 49 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown) or buy time to find an open receiver (finishing 14-of-27 for 245 yards and one touchdown). Michigan’s pass rush was very good for most of Saturday, but not good enough to contain Donovan, although he suffered enough hits to finally be taken out of the game, complete with Michigan blue paint helmet streaked on his throwing hand.

While the pressure that Donovan faced caused him to overthrow on several occasions, he was much sharper than Michigan freshman Ryan Mallett. Undone by the Camp Randall crowd and by the Badgers total shutdown of the Wolverine rushing game, Mallett made numerous bad throws, visibly angering receiver Mario Manningham and delighting Badger defenders, particularly Ikegwuonu and Shane Carter, who was the beneficiary of not only a Mallett up-for-grabs special but also an errant throw by Chad Henne on Henne’s last play of the game.

Only slightly souring Saturday’s win were the injuries that Wisconsin suffered. Already without P.J. Hill (although Hill did carry the ball five times in the second half), running back Lance Smith injured a shoulder, to go along with Donovan’s aforementioned wrist injury. The extent of both injuries were not known by late Saturday night, although Smith is ineligible to play in next week’s finale in Minnesota regardless (although he will be allowed to play in whatever bowl game the Badgers qualify for this season), and Donovan shouldn’t need to be at full strength to pick apart the woeful Gophers’ defense next week. (Goldy is allowing 38 points and 549 yards per game this season. Ouch.)

Next week’s battle for the Paul Bunyan Axe kicks off at 2:30 p.m. and can be seen locally on the Big Ten Network. Now that the Badgers got the game they wanted most, don’t look for them to let up next week on the hapless Gophers. The axe and the victory — and maybe a New Year’s Day bowl game bid — will be theirs.

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