Coming into Friday night’s game against Michigan (1-3), there were a litany of questions surrounding the No. 10 Wisconsin (2-0) football program. Nobody knew about quarterback Graham Mertz’s status, who would miss the game due to COVID-19, or how the team would respond after missing two consecutive weeks of practice. Expectations were high, but some rust was certainly expected.
Instead, Michigan looked like the team that hadn’t been practicing. Wisconsin dominated the game from start to finish, outgaining the Wolverines by 249 yards and rushing for an eye-popping 341 yards. The Badgers scored seven touchdowns and never took their foot off the gas, eventually cruising to a 49-11 victory and handing Michigan their worst home loss since 1935.
Fifteen minutes before the game began, Wisconsin released their inactives list, which included running back Garrett Groshek, guard Josh Seltzner, defensive lineman Garrett Rand, outside linebacker Izayah Green-May, and cornerback Rashad Wildgoose. With so many key contributors missing, Wisconsin was forced to get creative, especially offensively.
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph called a masterful game, slicing the Michigan defense with a heavy diet of end-arounds, full back dives and reverses, all of which the Maize and Blue were ill-equipped to deal with. The Badgers offensive line dominated up front, and four players, including fullback John Chenal and receiver Danny Davis, rushed for over 65 yards.
“We emphasized running this week,” said running back Nakia Watson. “We know we have to play for each other, block for each other in order for the other person to be successful. So I wasn’t surprised at all how we ran. I think we did a great job tonight.”
Mertz was not as sharp as he was in his debut, which was understandable considering he hadn’t been able to practice over the past several weeks. Still, he did an exceptional job protecting the football and managing the game, eventually completing 12 of 22 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. With the run game clicking and the Badger defense stifling Michigan’s offense, he didn’t need to do much more than that.
“I'm proud of how we shot off every snap,” Mertz said after the game. “The guys played angry, played fast and scored a lot of points, and that's always good.”
The Badgers defense set the tone for the game early on, intercepting Michigan quarterback Joe Milton on his first two pass attempts. The first came after safety Eric Burrell broke up an ill-advised shot to the sidelines, tipping the ball up in the air and leaving safety Scott Nelson with an easy interception. The second was a moment of panic for Milton, who, under heavy pressure, threw a pass straight to Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenal, who returned the ball to the Michigan 12 yard line.
Wisconsin capitalized on both turnovers, even invoking a bit of trickery to push the ball down the field. Following the first interception, with the ball at Michigan’s 33 yard line, Mertz handed the ball off to receiver Kendric Pryor on an end around. Pryor tossed the ball back to true freshman receiver Chimere Dike on a reverse sweep, and with some help from Mertz on a big time block, picked up a 30-yard gain, setting the Badgers up inside the MICH 5. Two plays later, running back Nakia Watson found the endzone to give the Badgers an early lead they would not relinquish.
The Badgers took a fourteen-point lead on a one-yard, play-action strike from Mertz to fullback Mason Stokke following the Chenal interception, giving Wisconsin a two-score lead just nine minutes into the game. Bucky would add two more touchdowns before the end of the half, a one yard run from John Chenal and a ten yard scamper from Nakia Watson. Wisconsin never let up, continuing to run up the score on the Wolverines until the clock read zeroes.
“That's what we told the offense: Kill the will,” said Wisconsin running back Watson.“They were still in at one point and we just told [other offensive players] that we just got to keep going, the game isn't over yet.”
Truthfully, the game was over from the moment Milton threw his second interception. Michigan looked completely shell-shocked on both sides of the ball, and were humiliated in the opening minutes, with the Badgers out gaining the Wolverines 129-1 in the first quarter. Defensively, the team was dominant, and Milton was benched midway through the third quarter after completing just nine passes for 98 yards.
With so many contributors missing the game, Wisconsin was forced to rely on several underclassmen, including linebacker Nick Herbig, running back Jalen Berger, and receiver Chimere Dike, to step up. And, as the saying goes, it turns out the kids are alright.
Herbig was a force all night, recording a team leading five tackles, including three for a loss. He was named 247Sports’s true freshman of the week, a testament to his disruptiveness all night. That accolade easily could have been awarded to Berger as well, who did not disappoint in his Badger debut, leading the team in carries (15) and yards (87). His longest, a 23-yard carry, resulted in Wisconsin’s seventh touchdown.
Tight end Jake Ferguson continued to impress, leading the team with four receptions and 51 yards. One of those receptions was a spectacular touchdown grab in the third quarter, when Ferguson high pointed a dime from Mertz over the hands of an outstretched Michigan linebacker to give the Badgers a 35-3 lead.
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst was thrilled with both the way the team played and how they responded to the COVID adversity over the past several weeks.
“Guys were into it, guys were playing,” Chryst said. “I loved how we kind of complemented each other. This team cares about each other. They all want to find their way to contribute … something like this doesn't happen if you a lot of guys are doing that and contributing. We had that and that's what makes this one a good one.
“I’m really proud of the way that everyone kind of worked through what we’ve gone through. I thought the coaches put together a heck of a plan. Most importantly, the players made it come to life. I thought they did a nice job of just starting fast.”
Wisconsin continues their season next week at Ryan Field against No. 19 Northwestern, off to a surprising 4-0 start this season. They dispatched Purdue this week and already have wins over Nebraska, Iowa, and Maryland, making the game especially crucial for the Badgers. With a victory next week, Wisconsin is firmly in the driver’s street for the Big Ten West crown, but a defeat would make a postseason trip to Indianapolis extremely unlikely. The game will be televised on ABC at 2:30 p.m. central time, and Wisconsin has opened as 8-point favorites in Las Vegas.