In a battle featuring the cream of the crop from America’s Dairyland, it was only right that the victory went to the team with the Cheeseman.
Wisconsin won the coin toss, chose to receive—one of many coaching choices that will be tried in the court of public opinion and inside team meeting rooms—and squandered their first drive, marching 21 yards down the field before having to punt. This put Michigan, already up 13-7 at halftime, in great position to put a stranglehold on the game should they score on the first drive of the third quarter. A defensive holding call on Wisconsin corner Rachad Wildgoose on a 3rd-and-5 deep ball to Nico Collins kept Michigan’s drive alive. Three plays later, Wisconsin safety Reggie Pearson took the form of a human missile, launching his body into Karan Higdon and popping the ball loose; the fumble was recovered by Michigan, but 3rd-and-1 was now 4th-and-6 from Michigan’s 44-yard line. With Michigan forced to punt, it appeared Wisconsin had neutralized their acrid decision-making. Then someone ran into Cam Cheeseman.
The roughing the snapper call moved the ball from Michigan’s 44-yard line to Wisconsin’s 41 and gave Michigan a fresh set of downs, with which they ran and ran and ran and ran again, until Shea Patterson kept on a zone read, arced to his right around the wad of blue and white jerseys, and leapt through an ankle tackle before flipping across the goal line. Michigan led 21-7 after Patterson rifled a pass to Nico Collins in the back of the end zone. Wisconsin gambled over and over and it backfired spectacularly.
There were other coaching flubs that benefited Michigan, including allowing Michigan to run down the clock at the end of the second quarter to ensure a Michigan field goal opportunity with no chance to get the ball back. Then there was the inexplicable decision to forgo easy yards and try to pass on third-and-short, only handing off to Jonathan Taylor on one of Wisconsin’s six third downs with three or less yards to go.
Reputation notwithstanding, it was Michigan’s offensive line caving the opposition all night, and though Wisconsin’s linebackers were often in the right place, Michigan’s playcalls made them wrong often enough to carve out 320 rushing yards.Shea Patterson ripped off an 81-yard run to open the second quarter and finished with nine carries for 90 non-sack-adjusted yards, and Karan Higdon had 19 yards for 105 yards. Michigan’s quarterback run game was good as it’s been in years, with Dylan McCaffrey toting the ball once on a zone read for 44 yards and a touchdown and Joe Milton—who seems to have taken over the third-string spot—rushing twice for 22 yards.
Wisconsin’s vaunted run game looked as advertised, with Jonathan Taylor carrying 17 times for 101 yards and the unit rushing for an average of 7.2 sack-adjusted yards. Taylor’s longest run of the day was a 23-yard scamper where he downshifted, waited for a miniscule lane to open, then jetted through that to the sideline before eventually being shoved out by Josh Metellus. Wisconsin scored on the next play, a jet-sweep handoff that Kendric Pryor turned up the west sideline.
Alex Hornibrook was the primary participant from there; things went poorly. Michigan’s pass rush continued to turn pockets into the Death Star trash compactor despite the continued absence of Rashan Gary. Michael Dwumfour, just a week removed from being carted off the field, flashed his Hurstian upside. Chase Winovich did Chase Winovich things, including bulling a tackle so far back he would have sacked Hornibrook for Winovich if Josh Uche hadn’t come in for his big-plays-only guest appearance and already taken Hornibrook down. Carlo Kemp also showed promising signs, holding his own against Wisconsin’s all-everything offensive line and occasionally generating pressure from the interior; he flung a lineman four yards back, shoved another away with one arm, and forced Hornibrook into a throw that closely resembled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook on 3rd-and-2 early in the fourth quarter.
Said throw went about six yards before it was plucked out of the air by Lavert Hill and promptly taken the other way for a touchdown, putting Michigan up 31-7 and effectively ending the game (until Paul Chryst tried to get back into it with a touchdown drive and onside kick with three minutes to go after punting mere minutes before which…yeah). Michigan’s corners were in lockstep with Wisconsin’s receivers, whose inability to create separation put five PBUs on the stat sheet for Michigan. David Long had two of those, including one where he leapt out of the proverbial gym and tipped a ball that Josh Metellus intercepted. Michigan’s corners were suffocating, and the safeties were excellent in run support and not tested much through the air. Wisconsin passed for 25 yards in the whole game if you subtract the 75 crazy yards the picked up on one garbage time drive, with 63 coming on two throws. Hornibrook threw 20 times. It was a long day for Wisconsin’s offense.
With 444 total yards, Michigan’s offense produced statistics that meshed well with the eye test. They are continuing to evolve, with stretch and actual zone reads pairing with Down G and inside zone to form an offense that forces defenders to cover every gap. The defense is playing as well as they have since Don Brown arrived, and with Dwumfour and Solomon back, they just need Gary to suit up to be back at full strength. The first third of the triathlon has been successfully completed. Now it’s time to sink or swim.