'A gut check for sure': No. 11 Michigan trounced by No. 13 Wisconsin in Big Ten opener
Madison, Wis. — It’s difficult to decide what was worse when so much was so bad.
So, no decision necessary.
Michigan was outplayed in every phase of the game — even with the luxury of an extra week to prepare — and was dismantled by Wisconsin 35-14 Saturday before 80,245 at Camp Randall Stadium.
The first half, which the Badgers dominated, 28-0, set the tone for the Wolverines, who fumbled early in the red zone, added an interception, failed to convert a third down and made so little use of their time on offense, Wisconsin’s offense seemed to be on the field the entire half.
The Wolverines looked utterly unprepared. They fall to 2-1 and should take a nosedive in the rankings from No. 11.
“We were outplayed,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said when asked how the Wolverines could look so unprepared even with the extra week. “Out-prepared and out-coached. Outplayed. The whole thing. Both offensively and defensively. It was thorough. We knew it about their team. They’ve got the ability. They’re good enough, and if they play good enough they can be good enough to beat you thoroughly, and that’s what happened today.
“Wisconsin had a great game plan, executed it extremely well. Outplayed us offensively and defensively. Things they did really well we were unable to do in terms of establishing a running game, having the play action come off of that. They blocked better, they tackled better, they had a better plan and executed it extremely well today.”
Coaches don’t ever want to admit that, but Harbaugh had no choice, even if it felt like a gut punch to do so.
“It’s a gut check for sure. I would say it that way,” he said. “And you go back to work.”
Stats don’t always tell a story, but they sure did on Saturday.
Wisconsin overwhelmed Michigan in every category, starting with time of possession. Michigan failed to convert on 10 third-down attempts and mustered only 40 rushing yards.
Quarterback Shea Patterson was 14-of-32 for 219 yards and had two touchdowns, an interception and a late fumble. The Wolverines had four turnovers, including a late interception of third-string quarterback Joe Milton.
There had been signs in the first two games. Fumbles — five heading into this Big Ten opener.
Inconsistent offensive play with everyone waiting for the promised “speed in space” to finally make an appearance. And that might have more to do with poor offensive line play than anything.
The defense, though, which came up big to secure the double-overtime win over Army, couldn’t stop anything. And it didn’t matter that the Badgers’ outstanding running back, Jonathan Taylor, had to seek medical attention long before the half was over because he already had 143 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 11.9 yards a carry.
Taylor accounted for 203 yards of the Badgers’ 359 rushing on 23 carries and had the two scores.
Michigan safety Josh Metellus said Taylor is “as good as advertised.”
“They did what they did well all season, run the ball,” Metellus said. “They’ve been doing it the past couple of seasons. They came in with the mindset they were going to try to run the ball on us and we knew we had to stop it. We tried to limit it as much as possible, but we just couldn’t get it done on the defensive side.
“They’re really good at what they do. ... we had guys make mistakes, that’s every football game people make mistakes, gaps get open. They would capitalize on all the little mistakes we made.”
The Wolverines said they would make a statement at Wisconsin. They didn’t guarantee victory or any nonsense like that, but they made clear the offense would play loose and the defense was relieved to be playing a more conventional offense and eager to face Heisman-caliber Taylor.
They also dismissed the fact they had been installed as slight underdogs heading into the Big Ten opener. Harbaugh is now 0-7 in games in which Michigan has been the underdog, including games against Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State in 2017.
This loss will ramp up plenty of discussions of where this program is in Harbaugh’s fifth season. Sure, it’s the third game of the year and sure it’s a cross-over game and the East Division is what it’s all about, but this game did make a statement — the Wolverines are out of sync, and, it seems, out of answers.
“It’s a team effort offensively, defensively, and we didn’t play our best, no question about it,” Harbaugh said. “They played really well. We’ll come back. A lot to fix.”
Even with some key players on offense available after missing the first two games, Michigan never had a chance to make anything click in large part because of the two first-half turnovers, but also Wisconsin’s ability to devour the clock and poke holes in the Wolverines’ defense.
Michigan finally got on the scoreboard with just more than two minutes left in the third quarter when Patterson returned to the game after Dylan McCaffrey, who started the second half, had to leave the field after taking a big hit.
Patterson connected on a 6-yard touchdown pass with tight end Sean McKeon, who left the field limping. Michigan made the 2-point conversion making it 35-8. The Wolverines added a score making it 35-14 with just under five minutes left when Patterson connected with Donovan Peoples-Jones, who missed the first two games with an undisclosed injury, for a 5-yard touchdown.
The first half was absolutely dismal for the Wolverines as Taylor rolled early with 143 yards and two touchdowns. Wisconsin dominated every statistical category, a function of the time of possession — the Badgers had the ball 23:03 in the first half. They had 312 total yards to Michigan’s 96, which included nine yards rushing.
Michigan failed to convert on four third-down attempts. Meanwhile, Wisconsin rushed for 200 yards.
Wisconsin opened the game with a 12-play drive that featured eight runs for 51 yards by Taylor, who scored to give the Badgers the 7-0 lead. Michigan moved the ball its opening possession. Patterson looked and found Ronnie Bell for a 68-yard reception. But on second down at the Badgers’ 7-yard line, Michigan made a curious decision to have Ben Mason, who converted in the offseason from fullback to defensive tackle, run the ball. He fumbled. Michigan has nine fumbles this season and lost six.
Harbaugh said Mason worked this past week at tailback as a “wrinkle” not to shore up depth, although he admitted freshman running back Zach Charbonnet was “limited’ although he said he was not hurt. Charbonnet ran twice for six yards. Of Michigan’s 19 rush attempts, 10 were by running backs. Mason’s fumble was deflating for a team that has been hampered by turnovers.
“That kinda killed us,” tight end Nick Eubanks said. “After that, we just kept dwelling on that and that just kinda sent us downhill.”
Eubanks said he saw some of the players looking downcast when the Badgers, who scored touchdowns on four of six possessions in the first half, took a 14-0 lead.
“When we went down 14, I looked around at a couple players, dropping their head,” he said. “We might have to face adversity — it’s either going to knock us down and keep us there or we’ve got to face it.”
That’s the decision the team — and coaches — have to make now.