Instant Analysis: Wisconsin-Michigan

Those who stood inside the Big House on a gleaming September afternoon in Ann Arbor, Mich., witnessed a mesmerizing, mind-bending, Big Ten brouhaha that brought bitterness to the Wisconsin Badgers. In a stupefying surprise that defied any logical explanation whatsoever, Rich Rodriguez scored the first huge win of his tenure as Michigan's new coach. He won't soon forget it—how could he?

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A few simple midgame statistics put this otherwordly upset into perspective. After the first 38 minutes and eight seconds of play in this, the 500th game played in venerable Michigan Stadium, the woeful Wolverines had fewer first downs (two) than turnovers (five). Wisconsin had accumulated almost as many points (19) as the number of yards Michigan had managed through two and a half quarters (31). The ninth-ranked Badgers were struggling in the red zone and coughing up a few turnovers in their own right, but for all their mistakes, Bret Bielema's boys were still cruising, up nearly three touchdowns against a team whose offense had been abysmal throughout the entirety of the 2008 season. Wisconsin's solidity—and Michigan's futility—combined to give the huge gathering a feeling of sleepy, somber sickness. Another day of Michigan misery, the latest horror show in a brutal death march of a season, was shaping up for the Maize and Blue.

And then, in the final 21 minutes and 52 seconds, everything changed. 180 degrees exactly. On a dime. Without warning.

The Wolverines didn't just rip off three offensive touchdowns, they did so on supremely sound sustained drives of 80, 85 and 77 yards, as quarterback Steven Threet became a bona-fide threat. Making plays with his arms and with his legs—most significantly, on a 58-yard scamper that set up Michigan's final, crucial score with 5:11 left in the fourth quarter—Threat became a leader after looking like a beaten man in those first 38 minutes of failure.

But as much as Michigan's offense did to make this incredible comeback possible, the Wolverines couldn't have whacked Wisconsin without the game's pivotal play, a tide-turning pick-six by linebacker John Thompson with 10:24 left in regulation. While Michigan did possess all the momentum in the world before the defining defensive score, the fact remained that Wisconsin—with just a few first downs, nothing more—could have drained clock, cemented field-position leverage, and forced Threat to march downfield one more time… with a five-point deficit (not the 20-19 lead Michigan enjoyed after the interception midway through the fourth quarter). On a day when Wisconsin didn't figure to need a perfect day from its offense and signal caller Allan Evridge, the Badgers were done in because Evridge—turnover-prone in the first half—continued to make mistakes down the stretch, too many for his teammates to overcome. That pick-six was the biggest misstep of all, but there were other occasions on which Evridge was below average.

In addition to his devastating, touchdown-producing interception, Evridge also fumbled inside the Michigan 10 with just under two minutes remaining, which—given Wisconsin's three timeouts—severely hampered the Badgers' chances in one key respect. Had Wisconsin scored a touchdown on that drive but failed on its subsequent two-point try, the boys from Madison still would have been able to use their timeouts and get the ball back with good field position in a 27-25 game, needing just a field goal to win. But because Evridge frittered away that particular scoring chance at the 1:42 mark in regulation time, all of Wisconsin's hopes rested squarely on a last-ditch drive in the game's final few seconds. Yes, Badger receiver David Gilreath made one of the most courageous catches ever seen to bring the score to 27-25 with 13 seconds left, but when Wisconsin's second two-point pass sailed out of the end zone (a successful first attempt was wiped out by an ineligible receiver downfield penalty), the Badgers simply didn't have enough time for another possession. The staggering upset was complete.

If you got stranded on a desert island for two years, or suffered a similar kind of displacement in recent times, and just returned to the comforts of civilization on this Saturday afternoon to find this Big Ten battle on the tube, you probably wouldn't have blinked. Michigan beat Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, maintaining mojo that hasn't been disrupted since 1994. Michigan won its 23rd straight Big Ten home opener, maintaining a way of life in Ann Arbor that Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr firmly established. On many surface levels, today's Michigan win over Wisconsin continued a number of very longstanding and normal patterns that are as familiar as the leaves turning yellow and orange at this time of year.

That the deeper underlying realities of these two teams were so different from the norm, however, is what makes this Michigan miracle—achieved with incredible resilience and supreme spunk—so absolutely astonishing. On the surface, it's as though nothing ever changed. But a brief peek under the outer shell of these sustained streaks will tell you how big a breakthrough this was for Rich Rodriguez in his maiden voyage as Michigan's main man on the sidelines. The Badgers, meanwhile, must now beat Ohio State not to win the Big Ten, but to merely stay alive in the races for both the conference crown and an at-large BCS bowl bid.

Those sentences above did not figure to be written in the middle of the third quarter of this spectacular Saturday stunner, but then again, nothing about "Michigan 27, Wisconsin 25," On Sept. 27, 2008, will ever be able to be explained with any coherence or clarity.

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