Wisconsin needed a quick start in a stadium that hadn't provided them many good thoughts over the last 16 years. While they didn't score on their first drive of the first half, senior Scott Tolzien made sure they scored on the rest of them.
Wisconsin got out to a fast start because Tolzien got out to a fast start, completing his first 13 passes before throwing an interception and throwing for 198 yards to stake the Badgers to a 24-0 halftime lead.
"I just got into a good rhythm," Tolzien said. "When you are in a rhythm like that, your vision is good, you start to see coverage … I don't know. There's something to be said about getting in rhythm as a quarterback. I think that helped the cause early on."
His 13 throws were dumps off to running backs in the flat either, as the senior slung the ball around with great accuracy and hit a bevy of wide receiver. On a second-and-nine, Tolzien floated a perfect pass between four defenders, including just out of the reach of the linebacker, into Toon's hands for a 26-yard gain. Tolzien hit Lance Kendricks down the sideline for 34-yard gain and had four pass plays that went for over 20 yards.
"Scott's a very accurate passer," junior Nick Toon said. "That's one of his strengths and he played a great game today. You can't score on the first drive every game, but if you stick to the game plan and execute, we'll be fine, and that's what we did today."
In the second half, Tolzien only attempted one pass, but was calm in managing the game and allowing his running backs to simply pound the ball down the Michigan defense.
Tolzien wasn't perfect, as his impression of John Clay showed. On a scramble out of the pocket in the first half, Tolzien chose to lower his shoulder instead of sliding to the turf. The result was a near fumble and only a seven yards gain. Tolzien rushed four times for six yards, but showed his toughness on each one of those plays.
Montee Ball mistakenly missed a blitz pickup on UW's first drive, cutting the outside rusher and allowing Jordan Kovacs to go untouched and get a clean hit on Tolzien for an eight-yard loss. That was about all that went wrong for the Badgers running backs.
Combined with the efforts of Montee Ball (29 carries, 173 yards, 4 TDS) and James White (23, 181, 2), Wisconsin got 171 of its 357 rushing yards and three t
ouchdowns after Michigan had cut the lead to 10. The duo averaged 6.68 yards per attempt. As a team, Michigan rushed for 168 yards - 121 of which came from Denard Robinson – and averaged 4.7 per carry.
"I thought today I saw more broke tackles than I had in the past," UW Coach Bret Bielema said. "Montee is really running hard and James, when he gets an opening, can go the distance. There's only 11 guys and the only guy that not blocking is the quarterback, and Scotty would if he could."
White also showed his pass-catching ability. On third-and-10, Tolzien stepped up in the pocket to avoid a charging lineman and hit White in the flat. The freshman cut inside, speed up enough to dive past the first down marker.
With John Clay on the bench for the second straight game, it was another sensational performance by the backs and the offensive line, which only had that one sack on their conscience.
"I get excited because, to see the smiles on their faces, and to realize that one's a true freshman and the other's a sophomore, is a pretty good feeling with the all-Big Ten player sitting on the bench," Bielema said. "It feels good."
Seven different wide receivers and running backs hauled in passes from Tolzien and had zero drops, all of which make the senior's numbers look that much better. Toon showed good focus to haul in the great pass by Tolzien and senior David Gilreath hauled in a strike on second-and-8, made a move and got UW inside the 25.
Senior Isaac Anderson didn't drop a pass this game, but coughed up the football early in the second half that led to Michigan scoring a touchdown and cutting the lead to 10. That turned out to be the last pass play of the half, as UW appeared to not want to get beat through the air.
Robinson was going to get his yards and he did, rushing for 121 and two scores to break the major-college record for yards rushing by quarterbacks. Still, he never looked comfortable thanks to Wisconsin's defensive line.
J.J. Watt was everywhere on the field Saturday, finishing with six tackles, one pass breakup and one key interception in the fourth quarter against Robinson where he batted the pass at the line of scrimmage, secured it for his first career pick and rumbled 15 yards before Robinson caught him from behind.
Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert continue to get more and more comfortable working opposite Watt, and finished with five and four tackles, respectively. When Robinson didn't run, Michigan tried having tailback Vincent Smith gain yards up the middle. The result was heavy resistance from Patrick Butrym (three tackles, one sack) and Beau Allen (three tackles), allowing very few yards up the middle and forcing Robinson to improvise.
Sophomore Mike Taylor finished with nine tackles and the UW linebackers kept things in check for the most part against the Wolverines. The only real negative was Culmer St. Jean dropping a jump-ball interception after Watt batted the Robinson pass at the line of scrimmage. Junior Hemingway made the hit that knocked the ball out that would have given UW the ball inside the 35. It was a moot point considering Michigan punted later in the drive, but it's still a play that should be made.
Robinson became the first player in NCAA history to throw and pass for over 1,500 yards in a season, but Wisconsin's defense handcuffed him in the first 30 minutes, having just 22 yards passing and 74 running before halftime. Aaron Henry was one of the ringleaders on that unit Saturday, registering a team-high 10 tackles (8 solo).
"We know Denard is a very explosive players and mainly, our key focus of our game plan was centered around him and stopping that run game," Henry said. "In the first half, we did a tremendous job."
Niles Brinkley added to his team-leading seven pass breakups with another deflection and chipped in with four tackles. Antonio Fenelus was involved in his fourth turnover in three games, recovering Bradie Ewing's forced fumble on the kickoff. Both corners allowed some big completions in the second half, but most were perfectly executed passes that they'll just have to tip their hat to.
"We knew what to expect and they were going to come out with a surge and give us a blow," Henry said. "That's what this game is about. You're going to be delivering blows and it was up to us to deliver that finishing blow."
They did, forcing a turnover on downs when Tate Forcier came in at quarterback.
Jared Abbrederis misplayed the opening kickoff and cost the Badgers valuable field possession on their opening drive, starting UW on its own 8 instead of probably the 38. White had two returns for 24, as the Badgers' return game never got anything serious going. Gilreath didn't make a return, but fair caught both punts without problem.
After missing an easy chip-shot field goal that would have made the difference in the game two years ago, Phillip Welch made both of his field goal attempts – 25 and 40 – and averaged 63.1 yards on nine kickoffs. UW's kickoff coverage sure is getting some work and performed OK, allowing the Wolverines to start outside the 30 four times (three when you exclude the squib kick in the final minutes). UW's hands team up for all of it, as Bradie Ewing (who forced a fumble on a kickoff late in the second quarter) and Jacob Pedersen each recovered an outside kick attempt.
Nortman showed no rust after not punting against Indiana, as his first punt was a dandy, a high sky kicked that bounced near the sideline, caromed forward and was downed at the one. Two weeks, one punt … life doesn't get that much better for a punter.