The eyes of the college football nation fell on Madison Saturday morning. College Gameday had wrapped up their morning telecast, there wasn’t and empty seat at Camp Randall Stadium and the implications of the showdown couldn’t be overstated.
No. 5 Wisconsin battled heroically versus No. 24 Michigan, their most touted matchup all year by a mile. The atmosphere was indescribable, as any final home game tends to be.
Michigan chipped away during their opening drive, doing just enough to consistently move the chains. Nick Nelson stepped up in a major way to break up a third down pass that would’ve put Michigan well over midfield and with a fresh set of downs.
With a young quarterback under center, the Michigan offense would do just enough to move the chains. Nothing too flashy, just measured and effective football.
In response, Wisconsin responded with their characteristically stifling defensive effort. After trading punts on the first two drives, Michigan again slowly shaved away yardage to the end zone, until Garrett Dooley burst through unblocked and absolutely leveled Michigan’s Brandon Peters.
After the third punt of the morning, it was time for the Wisconsin offense to set the tone. If you haven’t already noticed, here’s how Wisconsin drives go. Taylor picks up 3-5 yards, second down results in another three yard gain, and Wisconsin is left with a third and short. After picking up their premier first down conversion of the afternoon, a sloppy Hornibrook scramble resulted in the fourth straight punt of the morning.
After another Wisconsin stop, Michigan was again forced to punt deep in their own territory. The punt was low and wobbly, rolling most of the way to Nick Nelson. At what felt like the last minute, Nelson scooped up the ball, slicing and dicing the Michigan special teams effort for a 50-yard score, putting up Wisconsin 7-0 and calming a tense Camp Randall crowd.
Tremendous pass coverage again halted Michigan momentum, this time with Natrell Jamerson breaking up a deep haul that would’ve likely tied the game at seven.
After a Wisconsin drive that started on their own three, a punt was again the result. There’s a chance officials missed a running into the kicker call, but Michigan controlled the ball at midfield, connecting for a 35-yard pickup that put them in ideal scoring position. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Wisconsin defense responded like none other, forcing a fumble on third and goal and protecting their one score lead. Coach Chryst was especially proud of Connelly and Edwards, two linebackers who really stepped up.
“I thought those two were noticeable [Edwards and Connelly], they were fun to watch.”
Wisconsin’s offense sputtered again after working the ball across midfield from their own three. Michigan would string together three big pickups to put them on the Wisconsin one, eventually diving easily into the end zone to tie it at 7.
The defense can only do so much, and after the first Michigan score, Wisconsin could’ve sorely used a score heading into the half. However, Michigan would force a three and out and Wisconsin would head to the locker room tied at 7.
Another Wisconsin three-and-out kicked off the third quarter. The opposite sides of the ball for Wisconsin looked like two entirely different teams, as Michigan was again forced to punt on their ensuing drive.
After a turnover-free first half, Hornibrook reverted to his normal ways, throwing an ill-advised pass into coverage, picked off by Michigan, giving the Wisconsin defense a short field to defend in an up-for-grabs game. However, Chryst highlighted the fact that players had supreme confidence in their quarterback’s ability to bounce back.
“You don’t wanna panic, wanted to be persistent,” he said. “I think Alex does a really good job of being in the moment.”
To beat an already incredibly dead horse, the Wisconsin defense shut down the Michigan offense, but given the short field they were given, Michigan still converted a field goal, taking a 10-7 lead halfway through the third.
On the ensuing drive, a charge was finally applied to the Wisconsin offense, and AJ Taylor was the source. After a long third down where it looked like Wisconsin would be punting yet again, Taylor burned his man, setting up an easy 51 yard pickup followed by a 24 yard score three plays later. Wisconsin was now the proud owner of a four point lead, and the defense was ready to protect it.
Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters went down hard on the ensuing Michigan drive after being hit as he threw. He would be carted off the field as the injury bug continued to plague the Michigan squad. Peters was the third quarterback Michigan had started all year. He was replaced by senior John O’Korn.
After Taylor gave the offense the jump start they desperately needed, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor followed suit. Davis picking up a huge 27 yard catch that salvaged the Wisconsin drive on third down. The next play busted the game wide open, as Kendric Pryor streaked down the sideline for an enormous 32 yard TD, extending the Wisconsin lead to 11 late in the third.
The Wisconsin defense continued to shut down any hint of a Michigan score, effectively running out the clock until they were that much closer to that College Football Playoff birth.
With a fantastic 24-10 victory, Wisconsin overcame their early struggles to defeat their biggest threat all year. What’s more, it was a special senior day for the team, Chryst emphasized what that group has meant to the guys on the field.
“This senior group that are with us have done a great job of leading our younger players, and for that, we’re forever grateful.”
Next stop, Minneapolis.
Photo courtesy of foxsports.com