Big House, big rival, big game.
That’s what it boils down to for the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers (9-1, 5-1) as they head to Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines (7-3, 3-3) Saturday afternoon at Michigan Stadium.
Wisconsin is fresh off a resounding 83-20 drubbing of Indiana last Saturday and has its sights set on avoiding any missteps the rest of the season en route to a potential BCS bowl berth. Michigan, meanwhile, hit the road and endured five turnovers to take down Purdue 27-16. Dual threat quarterback Denard Robinson – the nation’s second-leading rusher – had four between two interceptions and two turnovers.
However, given the state of the Wolverine defense – 32.1 points per game allowed, 93rd in the nation – stopping Robinson is paramount for the Badgers.
“He’s really elusive,” linebacker Mike Taylor said. “Just watching film, he can run lateral and before you know it, he’s turning up the field and running past people. It’s up to us to be responsible and do what we’re supposed to do, not try to do too much.”
“Each individual has to do their job and not do more than that,” Taylor added. “They’ve got to get off blocks and be able to make tackles in space.”
In the open field is where Robinson does most of his damage. The 6’0″ 193 lb. sophomore affectionately known as “Shoelace” for his tendency to leave his shoes untied has rushed for 1,417 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year while also passing for 1,990, 14 and a 157.67 quarterback rating. However, turnovers have been kryptonite for Robinson, who has nine interceptions on the season. Furthermore, he’s been injury prone. Tate Forcier is a capable backup, but nowhere near the threat Robinson is.
“Denard runs the ball better, Tate, maybe a little better passer,” safety Jay Valai said. “Denard’s just as dangerous passing the ball, so you’ve got to give them both their individual respect. They’re both good quarterbacks.”
Offensively, Wisconsin has thrived despite enduring some injuries. Star running back John Clay has only missed one game, but he has been in and out of the rotation. Yet, Wisconsin has still rushed for the 12th-most yards in the nation, a testament to its running back depth and offensive line depth. Behind Clay, sophomore Montee Ball has been consistently reliable as a do-it-all back while freshman James White has emerged as a uniquely fast and elusive runner.
Along the hulking offensive line – one of the nation’s biggest and arguably its most talented – the Badgers have endured injuries to center Peter Konz, right guard Kevin Zeitler and guard Bill Nagy. Still, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has liked the continuity between quarterback Scott Tolzien, left tackle Gabe Carimi and left guard John Moffitt.
“It’s been important; we’ve had three guys that have started every game, otherwise it’s been a rotation,” Chryst said. “It’s important to be able to step in and have the same high expectations, regardless of who’s in.”
For Wisconsin, the return to Michigan Stadium goes beyond another Big Ten game at a crucial point in the season. Two years ago, the No. 9 Badgers invaded Ann Arbor and posted a 19-0 halftime lead. Yet, two quarters later it was the Wolverines who stormed the field after an incredible 27-25 upset. UW had a chance to leave with the win after converting a late two-point conversion, but tight end Travis Beckum was lined up incorrectly. On the next attempt, Wisconsin was unsuccessful.
“You’ve got to control the volume, man,” Valai said of playing in Michigan. “If you’re playing good on defense – I remember in the first half when we played them two years ago, the volume was quiet. They came back in the second half and it got real loud and crunk for them and exciting. That’s the important thing, you’ve got to control the volume over there in the Big House.”
So as the bad memories and looming consequences of another upset remind Wisconsin of what’s at stake, the weight of Saturday’s contest is anything but a secret. But for the Badgers, come kickoff, nothing changes.
“We just keep playing football like we’ve been playing all year. And that’s play Wisconsin football – fast, physical. We need to hit people. The best way I know how to stop a potent offense is to hit them right in the mouth, right out of the gate,” defensive end J.J. Watt said.
“That’s what we need to do all game, and we need to keep hitting them. We need to let them know that they’re playing the Wisconsin Badgers, and hopefully they’re going to come ready to play.”