After Wisconsin beat Michigan for the third straight time at Camp Randall Stadium, the maize and blue may not want to come back to Madison any time soon.
Two years ago, the Badgers’ 37 points against the Wolverines was the most UW had scored in the all-time series, but Wisconsin’s 45-24 victory Saturday set a new mark as head coach Bret Bielema’s squad dominated the second half to put the game out of reach.
In light of Wisconsin’s second half collapse in Ann Arbor a year ago, the victory was a big one for the Badgers, to say the least.
“That felt really good,” senior defensive end O’Brien Schofield said. “Any time you can beat Michigan that feels good, but especially after what happened last year.”
Although they struggled to keep Michigan off the scoreboard in the first half, the Badgers dominated all facets of Saturday’s home finale. The Badgers had 28 first downs to just 15 for the Wolverines, 229 rushing yards to Michigan’s 71 and 240 passing yards to only 194 for UM.
Most impressive of those statistics was the Wisconsin run defense, which allowed Michigan — the Big Ten’s leading rushing offense with 208.3 yards per game on 4.8 yards per carry — to pick up just 2.2 yards per attempt.
Quarterback Denard Robinson led the Wolverines in rushing Saturday, picking up 36 yards on five attempts while running backs Vincent Smith and Brandon Minor combined for 54 yards on 15 carries.
Much of the Badgers’ success on the defensive side of the ball can be attributed to the pressure the UW defensive line was able to get on the Wolverines in the backfield. In particular, defensive end J.J. Watt made several plays, though he came up empty twice when he thought he had a sack on Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier.
“I had him wrapped up twice, and he flipped the ball out,” Watt said. “That’s frustrating to me. … The first time I hopped up, I thought I had the sack, (and) I was ready to celebrate and then people were still running around. I was like, ‘I’m not getting any high fives over here.’ I felt like (Scott) Tolzien in that highlight from the Ohio State game.”
Watt did come up with the big play once on special teams though, blocking a crucial early field goal that helped keep the game tied at seven points apiece.
“I think I just got deep enough there and threw the hands up far enough that I got the block,” Watt said. “It was a lot of fun. The stadium really erupted on the play, and I felt the electricity. It was one of the most exciting plays I’ve ever made.”
Wisconsin running back John Clay had another impressive performance, carrying the ball 26 times for 151 yards and a touchdown. In addition to wearing down the Michigan defense and setting up the passing game, Clay’s performance put the Racine native over 1,000 rushing yards on the season.
Because Michigan frequently stacked the box to stop the Badgers’ rushing game, UW found plenty of success through the air as well.
Tolzien, the Badgers’ junior quarterback, had his best game in months, connecting on 16 of 24 passes for 240 yards and four touchdown passes. And when Tolzien added a rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter, he became just the 11th player in UW history to be responsible for five touchdowns in a game.
“He’s playing great. He took a couple of hits today, but he’s a really tough kid,” fifth-year senior tight end and captain Garrett Graham said of Tolzien. “I couldn’t be more proud of Scott and the entire offense.”
Graham caught the first of four Tolzien touchdown passes, a 22-yard strike that capped an impressive opening drive for UW. He would finish with five catches for 62 receiving yards, his best performance since leaving the Iowa game with a concussion four weeks ago.
Sophomore wide receiver Nick Toon also had a big day, catching five balls and finishing just two yards shy of his second consecutive 100-yard receiving day. More importantly, though, the Middleton native grabbed a pair of touchdowns on the day, including a 15-yard catch in the third quarter despite being interfered with on the play.
After dropping what would have been his first career touchdown pass last year in Ann Arbor, Toon’s second touchdown gave the 6-foot-3 receiver a measure of revenge from last year’s game at Michigan. It also proved last week’s performance was not a fluke.
“Anytime you have a big game you want to try to follow it up and improve off that,” Toon said. “That’s what I tried to do this week, and hopefully I can continue to play well.”
Toon’s second touchdown made it 28-17 in favor of Wisconsin and the Badgers would not trail the rest of the way.
After Michigan cut the lead to 28-24, Tolzien connected with tight end Lance Kendricks for a seven-yard touchdown pass and punched one in himself from the one-yard line on the Badgers’ next two possessions.
Perhaps the most important drive of the game for the Badgers, though, was the last one, which ended in a 28-yard Philip Welch field goal.
Tolzien led Wisconsin 60 yards downfield in 15 plays over 8:01. It was reminiscent of UW’s final drive against Indiana a week ago, and gave the Wolverines just 1:43 to work with down 21 in the fourth quarter.
“Welcome to Wisconsin football — that’s what we do,” Bielema said. “It may not be pretty, (but) I enjoyed watching all that time click off the clock there in the fourth quarter, just grinding it out.”