- Total yards: UW 325, UM 234.
- Second half yards: UW 226, UM 64.
- Alex Hornibrook (UW): 9-for-19 for 143 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT. Not too good, but he was 3-for-5 for 48 yards on the go-ahead scoring drive. Those two passes to Taylor were enormous.
- John O’Korn (UM): 2-for-8 for 19 yards. Michigan was already starting to flag when Peters went down, but the Wolverines didn’t do a single thing after that.
- Johnathan Taylor (UW): 19 carries for 132 yards. Not an incredibly efficient day, but he had some big, field-flipping plays.
- Chris Evans and Karan Higdon (UM): 18 carries, 45 yards.
A very Wisconsin win for a very Wisconsin Wisconsin. Survive and advance.
What was once a dream can now be a reality.
Who would have thought that the Wisconsin Badgers could have a real chance at going 12–0 heading into the Big Ten Championship Game? OK, so some of you thought it was a possibility. However, the act of actually winning 12 football games in a row is incredibly difficult. Minnesota, coming off of a butt-whipping from Northwestern, will undoubtedly be be frothing from the mouth and ready after P.J. Fleck gives the Gophers the most motivational speech he can muster.
However, if Wisconsin executes and handles its business, the Badgers should go 12–0, and enter the Big Ten Championship Game undefeated. Woof.
It was over when Peters went down.
Brandon Peters gave Michigan fans reasons for optimism the last three weeks with his strong play against poor opponents. He made a massive mistake fumbling on a scramble near the goal-line, but he continued to show flashes of why he is the future at quarterback for this program.
It was not perfect, but he had a connection going with Donovan Peoples-Jones (one of which was non-touchdown that should have been) and did guide the team to a 10-7 lead in the third quarter.
Then, he took a nasty, unnecessary hit after throwing the football that knocked him out of the game with a bad-looking head injury. John O’Korn replaced him in the lineup and the wind was out of Michigan’s sails from there.
People are freaking out at the inability to get it done, but anyone who has watched O’Korn the last few seasons knows what they are getting out of him. He is not a good, or even adequate, backup and that is disappointing.
0:00. That’ll do it. Michigan goes four-and-out, Wisconsin kneels out the clock, and the Badgers are now two games away from a likely spot in the College Football Playoff. Well done.
2:25. Wisconsin 24, Michigan 10. Wisconsin fans can be heard singing “Build Me Up Buttercup” in the background as Wisconsin all but puts the game away. That’s a perfect college football moment right there. Nine consecutive runs gain 40 yards, move the chains three times, and force Michigan to burn its final timeouts.
Rafael Gaglianone kicks a 30-yard field goal, and it’s a 14-point game with under two and a half minutes left.
7:42. Dropped pass, run stuff, short scramble. A limp three-and-out for Michigan at just the wrong time, and then Nelson returns a 47-yard punt for 19 yards in the other direction. Wisconsin will start near midfield and is getting awfully close to 11-0.
9:54. No points for Wisconsin, but the Badgers do something almost as good: they flip the field and eat some clock. Michigan’s Josh Metellus is flagged for a really shaky pass interference penalty on third-and-4, then Taylor rips off a beautiful 52-yard cutback run to the Michigan 34.
Khaleke Hudson sacks Hornibrook for a huge loss after that, and the Badgers soon punt, but having the Wolverines start inside their 25 with under 10 minutes left is a fine result there.
13:17. Havoc looks so good on this Wisconsin defense. O’Korn’s first two passes of the fourth quarter are both knocked out of receivers’ hands by Badger defenders, and on a third-and-10 from the UW 49, he nearly gets sacked and throws incomplete. Another punt pins the Badgers at their 5, but the clock could get away from Michigan pretty quickly here.
0:00. A few weeks ago, John O’Korn was benched in favor of Peters. Now it’s up to him to pull off a huge comeback. The third quarter ends with an 11-yard pass from O’Korn to Peoples-Jones (quietly having a lovely game). The Wolverines will start the fourth at their 36.
(That was from a few years ago, not today. Don’t care.)
0:24. Wisconsin 21, Michigan 10. It’s amazing what some third-down heroics can do. After just barely being deprived of a huge first-half catch, Danny Davis makes a gorgeous one-handed catch of a third-and-8 pass for Wisconsin, then Pryor scores on a picture-perfect end around. And after looking completely lost offensively, Wisconsin has driven 77 and 61 yards for touchdowns in its last two drives.
2:06. Oof. After a short run and a short pass, Peters gets drilled by Van Ginkel while throwing incomplete on third down. His head and left shoulder take all the weight of both players, and he lies motionless on the ground for a while before getting driven off the field on a cart. I’m guessing we won’t see him again today. Michigan punts.
3:31. Wisconsin 14, Michigan 10. And now it’s Hornibrook’s turn to respond with some huge throws. Wisconsin’s first-down failures continue — the Badgers’ last seven first-down attempts: a four-yard run, a three-yard run, a five-yard sack, an interception, a four-yard stuff, an incompletion, and a one-yard stuff — but UM’s Tyree Kinnel commits a pass interference penalty on second-and-14, Hornibrook finds A.J. Taylor for a 51-yard bomb on third-and-13, and then Hornibrook and Taylor connect for a 19-yard score on third-and-11.
Did not see that coming. Wisconsin leads again.
6:36. Michigan 10, Wisconsin 7. The difference in this game right now is that Michigan has been getting some first downs before punting, and Wisconsin really hasn’t. It’s what tilted the field in UM’s favor in this quarter, and it just gave the Wolverines a field goal as well. An end-around to Peoples-Jones for 12 yards is all they get after the pick, but it’s all they need. Quinn Nordin hits a 39-yarder to give Michigan the lead.
8:33. INTERCEPTION. And there’s the crippling Hornibrook mistake Michigan was hoping for. He drops to pass again on first down (!) and, seemingly surprised by the lack of pressure, gets aggressive and throws into double coverage. Devin Bush reads him perfectly and picks the ball off while falling down at the UW 29. Uh oh.
8:42. Rinse, repeat. UM stalls out in UW territory (a first-down false start basically dooms the drive before it starts), then pins the Badgers at their 10 with a punt. On we go.
9:37. Yikes. No idea what Wisconsin can do offensively at the moment. UW comes out passing on first down — out of character — but Hornibrook can barely complete his drop before he gets sacked by what seems like nine Wolverines. Then on second down, the Badgers can’t even set up a screen before Hornibrook has to throw the ball away. After a short pass on third down, Wisconsin punts again, and Peoples-Jones returns it to the UW 41. The Badgers are back under 100 yards.
10:56. Michigan’s done a lovely job of flipping the field today. The Wolverines’ first play of the half is a 22-yard pass to Hill, the fullback, who leaked unseen out of the backfield. They go three-and-out from there, but Wisconsin will start its second drive at its 11.
12:51. Wisconsin’s first attempt at shaking things up offensively after a destitute first half: a jet sweep to Kendric Pryor on the second play of the half. It loses a yard. And then Hornibrook is sacked by Mike McCray on third down. Another three-and-out for the Badgers, in other words. But they did get their total yardage into triple digits. It’s exactly 100 now.
- Total yards: UM 170, Wisconsin 99. The Badgers gained 48 yards on one drive (which resulted in a punt) and only 51 the rest of the way. They have only one first down outside of that drive.
- Brandon Peters (UM): 7-for-12 for 133 yards. He hasn't thrown a pick, but his red zone fumble took at least three points off of th board.
- Alex Hornibrook (UW): 4-for-7 for 40 yards. No major mistakes, and he almost had a huge third-down completion, but it was overruled on replay.
- Jonathan Taylor (UW): 9 carries, 45 yards, but 32 came on two carries on the one decent punting drive.
- Michigan backs (Higdon, Evans, fullback Khalid Hill): 15 carries, 37 yards. It's been all on Peters.
0:00. The half ends with a Wisconsin three-and-out, a punt, and a Michigan kneeldown. Having zero timeouts cost Michigan a chance at at least a field goal or something at the end.
2:24. Michigan 7, Wisconsin 7. What a hell of a response by Peters. Following that devastating fumble, he comes out and finds Peoples-Jones on a 48-yard bomb, hits Evans underneath for 19 yards on third-and-8, then hits McKeon for 14 yards to the UW 1. Ben Mason takes it in from there, and we’re tied late in the first half. Peters looks like a sophomore at times, but he could be good soon.
5:58. The branding is strong in this one.
- #TightEndPassGame: Wisconsin gets out of the shadow of its end zone with a 20-yard pass from Hornibrook to Fumagali.
- #PowerRushing: Big rushes of 11 and 21 yards by Taylor get the Badgers into Michigan territory.
- #DefenseDefenseDefense: Taylor is stuffed for a four-yard loss on first down, which leads to third-and-forever and a punt.
That last part was close, though. Danny Davis III appeared to make a huge first-down catch on the aforementioned third down, but replay said it was just barely incomplete. A couple of really tight, high-impact replays so far.
8:42. FUMBLE. Game of inches! After a #TightEndBigPlay — Peters to Gentry for 35 yards as Peters gets rocked — Gentry lobs to Peoples-Jones on second-and-goal from the 5. Peoples-Jones’ right foot comes down out of bounds, and it is ruled incomplete.
Replay proves inconclusive; you could make the case that Peoples-Jones’ left foot came down inbounds a split second before the right foot hit, but you would damn near need 3-D imagery to know for sure.
That’s a problem because on third-and-goal, Peters scrambles left and is stripped as he tries to reach forward toward the end zone. Derrick Tindal recovers for Wisconsin at the Michigan 1.
10:43. Okay, the three most important plays have been on punts. After a Wisconsin three-and-out, Wisconsin’s Anthony Lotti punts for only 28 yards to the Badger 40. The refs could have called a running-into-the-kicker penalty if they wanted to but said that Lotti flopped a little bit. Definitely a 50-50 call.
12:47. Goodness, Wisconsin’s pursuit speed is something else. After converting a third-and-short, Peters gains only one yard on a scramble, then Evans gains just two out wide. Then Peters scrambles on third down and sees tight end Zach Gentry wide open, but his lob is short, and Natrell Jamerson is able to catch up and break it up.
Brad Robbins’ punt is super short but takes an amazing bounce (25-plus yards) and is downed at the 3. The biggest plays have been punts, and there have been lots of third-down passes to (or intended for) tight ends. This game is exactly what it was supposed to be so far.
0:00. The quarter comes to an end with Michigan’s Ty Isaac turning his ankle (Higdon was already getting his leg looked at as well, which probably means a lot of Chris Evans moving forward) and the Wolverines facing a third-and-inches.
1:15. Wisconsin 7, Michigan 0. After the timeout, UM runs a pitch play, and Andrew Van Ginkel blows it up. Michigan got absolutely nothing from at least two of its three timeouts ... and then Nick Nelson makes the malfunction worse by fielding the ensuing shaky punt off the bounce and weaving 50 yards for a touchdown.
That he let it bounce seemed to throw UM off the scent, and when the bounce checked up nicely, Nelson took advantage.
2:17. Following a two-yard Karan Higdon run, Wisconsin pressure creates an incomplete screen pass, and then Michigan uses its final timeout of the half 13 minutes in! No idea why, either—the Wolverines were lined up in a wildcat formation, which suggests they were waiving the white flag for the drive anyway.
2:58. Good and bad from Hornibrook: he misses seeing a tight end coming open on the second play of Wisconsin’s second drive but fires a perfect, tight pass to Troy Fumagali on third-and-5. But on third-and-1 on the next set of downs, Wisconsin passes again, and he can’t quite fit a tight pass in to another tight end, Kyle Penniston. But the first down allows UW to flip the field with a 40-yard punt. Michigan will start at its 14.
6:10. Well that took a while. Michigan moves the chains once and then punts, but not until calling two timeouts due to confusion and/or an expiring play clock. And after the second timeout, Peters gets rocked by Garret Dooley on third-and-7. Probably could have saved a timeout and had the same result.
Pretty impressive achievement, though: Michigan killed nearly four minutes while snapping the ball only six times and calling timeout twice.
10:07. Wisconsin gets a little too cute — or maybe uncute — on its first possession. Alex Hornibrook gains four yards on a rollout on the first play, then Jonathan Taylor’s first carry gains five. But on third-and-1, Wisconsin tries a quick plunge by fullback Alex Ramesh, and he is stoned. Donovan Peoples-Jones returns the ensuing punt to the Michigan 27.
12:23. Michigan’s first drive just about follows the “scoring on Wisconsin” script: Wisconsin commits a holding penalty to move the chains (check!), and UM quarterback Brandon Peters completes a third-and-9 pass to tight end Sean McKeon to move the chains again (check!).
However, from the UW 41, Nick Nelson breaks up another third-down pass to McKeon, and Michigan, not one to ever really go for it on fourth down, punts into the end zone for a touchback.
15:00. The weather is sufficiently gross — 37 degrees and moist. Let’s do this.
It feels like ages ago that this was an actual concern, but it really was, at least for me: Wisconsin's Paul Chryst entered 2017 with his best team yet in Madison... and with maybe the least experienced defensive coordinator you'll ever see.
Jim Leonhard is the embodiment of Wisconsin football. A walk-on from Tony, Wisc., he was a three-time All-American and Wisconsin hall of fame inductee, and despite his 5’8 stature, he spent a decade in the pros, starting for about four seasons and picking off 14 passes.
Leonhard retired after 2014, spent a year as basically a staff volunteer for UW in 2015, then landed his first official gig — Wisconsin DBs coach — last fall. And now he’s the coordinator for a defense that has ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 10 for back-to-back years. After Aranda left for LSU and replacement Justin Wilcox left for the Cal head coaching job, Chryst stayed in-house.
I’m not going to question Leonhard’s aptitude or potential as a teacher, but ... this is all rather quick, isn’t it?
This feels like the ultimate “Screw it, we’re Wisconsin” move. And because of the experience elsewhere on the coaching staff and the experience littering the two-deep, it might work. But consider this a red flag.
Calling something a red flag is a lovely hedge. You’re not committing to saying something is a problem; you’re simply pointing it out just in case.
The Leonhard hire: Not a problem.
Ten games in, Wisconsin has yet to lose.
The No. 5 Badgers have allowed more than 17 points just once all season and head into Saturday’s game against No. 24 Michigan with the top-ranked defense in the country, according to Def. S&P+.
The Badgers are efficient. They prevent big plays. If you get the ball in the red zone, they’re probably holding you to a field goal. They are good against the run and tremendous against the pass. There is almost no discernible weakness, on paper.
It’s hard to look at Wisconsin’s full-season numbers and find a clear path to scoring. In instances like these, it’s sometimes helpful to focus on the rare failures.
In seven Big Ten games, the Badgers have allowed teams to score 20 times — 11 touchdowns and nine field goals. Let’s see if we can find any similarities in how teams went about putting points on the board.
1. Against Wisconsin, the best offense is a good defense
Of these 20 scores, eight came after Wisconsin turnovers. Nebraska returned an interception for a touchdown, and Iowa returned two. Purdue, Maryland, and Northwestern each earned field goals after forcing turnovers in UW territory and going three-and-out.
UW quarterback Alex Hornibrook is having a decent year. He’s completing 64 percent of his passes and averaging 8.1 yards per attempt, including sacks. The Badgers rank 28th in Passing S&P+ and 19th in passing success rate, and for an offense so focused on and capable of running the football, that’s more than enough.
He can be baited into mistakes, however, as Bud Elliott and I discussed around the 55-minute mark of this week’s Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody.
Hornibrook has thrown 12 interceptions in 206 passes, a 5.8 percent interception rate that is more than twice what you would prefer. He also takes sacks on 6.5 percent of his attempts. He is confident and willing to step up and make tough passes. He just doesn’t always make those passes well.
The easiest path for a Michigan score is a short field; the Wolverines’ defense is young but excellent, ranking sixth in Def. S&P+ despite major 2016-to-2017 turnover. They are fourth in Passing S&P+ and first in passing success rate, and it would only take a couple of poor Hornibrook passes to change this game.
2. Make the big pass (or get bailed out)
Of the 14 scoring drives in this sample that actually required an offense to move the ball, Wisconsin’s defense committed six third-down penalties to extend those drives. Most were pass interference penalties. There were a couple on second downs, too.
Wisconsin’s pass defense is insanely physical. The Badgers rank fifth in Adjusted Sack Rate and third in passing success rate. A whopping 46 percent of opponents’ incompletions are the result of a pass defensed (intercepted or broken up), the highest rate in the country. UW ranks first in both linebacker havoc rate (forced fumbles, tackles for loss, and passes defensed divided by total snaps) and defensive back havoc rate, as well.
The balance here is astounding. Eleven Badgers have at least 2.5 tackles for loss, 10 have at least 1.5 sacks, nine have taken part in at least three run stuffs (stops at or behind the line), and seven have defensed at least three passes — corner Nick Nelson is third in the country with 18.
This Badger D does not wait around for you to make a mistake; it forces them. But this physicality is also a dare to the officials, a “You’re not going to call pass interference on every single pass, are you?” wager. That bet usually pays off, but sometimes it doesn’t.
Wisconsin averages just 5.9 penalties per game, 56th in the country and right at the national average. But there’s a pretty strong correlation between when these penalties occur and when opponents score points. There’s also a correlation between points and big third-down passes.
Michigan’s scoring has risen dramatically since Brandon Peters took over at quarterback three games ago. After averaging 17 points per game over the three preceding games, they’ve averaged 34 with Peters. But he’s not being asked to do a whole lot.
In wins over Rutgers, Minnesota, and Maryland, Peters’ average passing line was 9-of-15 for 108 yards. The run game has been key, and Peters’ job has been to avoid mistakes.
He’s made some pretty big passes, though. On third down with four or more yards to go, he’s 9-of-14 for 98 yards and no picks. Meanwhile, in this 14-drive scoring sample for Wisconsin opponents, passers are 9-of-15 for 124 yards on such downs. Peters is moving the chains, and he’ll be asked to do the same in Madison, especially since there’s one more commonality among these scoring drives: The run isn’t really an option.
During scoring drives, opponents have rushed 53 times in 140 plays, not including five sacks. Only seven of these rushes gained more than nine yards — six of those came when the opponent was down double digits and Wisconsin was in defend-the-pass mode — and 32 gained four or fewer.
Success against Wisconsin tends to come from a quarterback’s arm, not a running back’s legs.
3. Go for it
Four times in these 14 drives, it took more than third-down conversions. Maryland converted a fourth-and-10, Northwestern converted a fourth-and-7 and a fourth-and-1, and Purdue converted a fourth-and-6.
In three of these four, the opponent was down by double digits and trying desperately to stay in the game. But despite Michigan’s play-it-safe ideal, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Jim Harbaugh to take some risks on fourth-and-short.
Opponents are getting no more than three good scoring chances per game against UW. You have to take advantage of each.
Risk of this nature would be out of Harbaugh’s character. The Wolverines have only attempted 11 fourth-down conversions in 10 games, 101st in the country. With a great defense at his disposal, Harbaugh is happy to punt or kick a field goal and live to fight another series. If his defense is stuffing Wisconsin and/or forcing a few turnovers, then that approach might be fine. If not, though? Might have to force the issue, whether it’s in your DNA or not.
The S&P+ pick: Wisconsin (-7.5) 28, Michigan 18.
Wisconsin is tremendous, but this might the worst possible time to play the Wolverines (S&P+ disagrees.)
It always feels like a cop-out to say that quarterback play is going to determine this game, but quarterback play is probably going to determine this game.
Michigan’s best path to an easy score or two comes from forcing Hornibrook mistakes. Sustained scoring drives will almost certainly require big passes from Peters.
Michigan’s recent offensive rebound has to give Wolverine fans hope here. It appears it’s a lot more difficult to play UM now than it was a month ago.
But this Wisconsin defense is mostly immovable, and the Wolverines might need picks and penalty flags to score the upset.