Big House Has Equaled Big Problems for UW

No matter how good or how bad the host team is inside Michigan Stadium, Wisconsin has found a way to struggle in one of college football biggest environments, including one game that altered an entire season. If the trend continues for No.6 Wisconsin, this heartbreak would be near the top of the list.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - It was an innocent response question directed at the podium of Head Coach Bret Bielema after the Indiana game, asking if the fifth-year coach has allowed himself to do some scoreboard watching.

Bielema mentioned minutes earlier that Northwestern knocked off Iowa, effectively taking one horse out of the Big Ten title race. His response was nothing of the present, but of an incident two years ago that continues to eat at him to this day.

"Believe me, we all know what happened the last time we went to Michigan," Bielema said. "We let something happen up there that was embarrassing to me, to our program and put us on a tailspin there for a little while.

"If that doesn't have a place in your stomach, there's something wrong with you."

Tailspin is a kinder way of saying the 27-25 Michigan victory two years ago plummeted the Badgers to record lows during the 2008 season, raising questions of the way Bielema coached, the lack of team discipline and the lack of leadership. Senior Jay Valai says the game still holds a pit in his stomach, and he can point to the exact moment that things turned.

UW dominated the first half in creating five first-half turnovers and plenty of yards but the offense settled for four field goals on five first half drives instead of touchdowns. Still, UW built a 19-0 halftime lead and caused the loyal Michigan fan base to boo the Wolverines off the field.

Valai remembers guys gloating in the visiting locker room, thinking the game was over and turning a deaf ear when the coaching staff said to treat the score like its 0-0. The next time they stepped foot in the locker room, the Michigan Band was piping ‘Hail to the Victors' in celebratory fashion. Consider it lesson learned for a team that hasn't won in Michigan Stadium since 1994 (0-5).

"Don't count your eggs before they are hatched, because that's what we did at halftime," Valai said. "We listened but we didn't execute. From top to bottom, we didn't perform and they beat us."

The largest come-from-behind home victory in Michigan history was the first of four straight losses for Wisconsin and six overall in a season that Bielema hardly references to. Maybe that's why he caught his players' attention by mentioning in the locker room minutes after Wisconsin crushed Indiana, 83-20, at Camp Randall last Saturday.

"I think about that game all the time," said senior cornerback Niles Brinkley, who says the game was one of his low moments in his career. "That was a huge game in our history here, our legacy here. It should give us precedence on stuff like that. We can't allow us to do as well as we did in the first half only to flop in the second half."

Times have changed since that bleak moment for both programs, which makes No.6 Wisconsin's visit to Michigan Saturday full of plenty intrigued.

The Badgers (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten) are disciplined – leading the country in fewest penalties per game with an average of 3.1 – and they are effective – ranking eighth in the country in scoring offense with a 40.2 points per game average and leads the country with a 81.1 percent red zone touchdown percentage.

Michigan (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) has regressed defensively from two years ago and are last in the conference in total defense (433.9 ypg), and pass defense (270.2 ypg), but have flourished offensively under sophomore quarterbacks Denard Robinson (averaging 340.7 yards of total offense per game) and Tate Forcier, who helped Michigan defeat Illinois in a 67-65 triple overtime thriller Nov.6.

"With Michigan being the number one rushing offense in the Big Ten, they can make plays, but that was a bad defensive game," Brinkley said of the Illinois game. "A lot of guys were just opened in that game, so we have to try to eliminate the big plays and make them one dimensional. Make them throw the ball and take away those big plays."

Wisconsin is a perfect 2-for-2 on its 2010 redemption, making up for losses against Ohio State and Iowa in back-to-back weeks. But with the chance to bury its biggest bugaboo of all and just two wins away from the program's first Rose Bowl berth in 11 years, it's been business as usual for the highly-confident Badgers.

"A lot of people would say there would be a lot of reasons for us to have a higher intensity, but we have prepared extremely hard every single week and had a lot of intensity all year," junior defensive end J.J. Watt said. "This week is no different. We want to win for this program and for the state of Wisconsin. This game is bigger than the 2008 game and bigger than just one game. We understand what's at stake. We don't like to talk about, but we all understand what's waiting if we take care of our business."


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