ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Taking down two top-10 opponents away from home, as double-digit underdogs nonetheless, the University of Wisconsin knew how to survive and thrive against some of the teams anointed as best in the country.
They’ll now learn what it’s like to let one of them slip away.
“It sucks when you pour your absolute heart and soul into the game and you don’t get the outcome you want,” said outside linebacker T.J. Watt, trying to stay up beat after No.8 Wisconsin’s 14-7 defeat to No.4 Michigan in front 111,846 at Michigan Stadium Saturday.
“In a big game like this, we were so close. There were so many plays we were so close.”
All those plays added up for the Badgers (4-1, 1-1) and extended to both sides of the football.
Wisconsin’s defense – playing admirably without senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel (right foot) – gave up some busts and a season-high 349 yards of offense, but limited the Wolverines to 3 of 15 on third down and sacked quarterback Wilton Speight four times. They also intercepted him once, a spectacular tipped pass by inside linebacker Jack Cichy into the arms of cornerback Derrick Tindal for a 46-yard interception that led to UW’s tying touchdown in the third quarter.
But while the Badgers improved their third-down defense to 14 of 61 (23.0 percent) on the season, a third-and-7 completion by Speight to Amara Darboh for 15 yards was a killer. One player later, Darboh beat Tindal off a slight juke at the line of scrimmage and hauled in a 46-yard touchdown pass with 7:56 remaining.
“Every time we let them get away on third down, we feel like we let them slip,” Cichy said. “Third down on defense, we want that to be our calling card. We want to be reliable on third down. We had a couple of those we let get away from us today. That’s a no-no.”
To be fair, Michigan’s other two third down conversions ended in drives with missed field goals, but the amount of plays Wisconsin’s offense left on the table never made them pay.
Managing only 159 yards and eight first downs, Wisconsin only drove twice into Michigan territory in its 13 series, seeing six drives go three plays or less. The Badgers averaged only 4.1 plays per drives and their longest drive (nine plays) was the first series of the game.
UW went 2-for-3 on third downs to open the game and 2-for-12 the rest of the way.
“There’s some critical times where we didn’t make that play,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
Wisconsin’s inability to move the ball was never more critical than at the start of the fourth quarter in a tie game. After a 12-yard Jazz Peavy punt return and a 10-yard Michigan holding penalty gave Wisconsin the ball at its own 49, tailback Corey Clement – on one of the few big bursts he had all afternoon – went for 19 yards up the middle for a first down at the Michigan 35.
The next four plays: minus-3 rush, 3-yard rush, incompletion, punt. UW never saw Michigan territory again.
“We really didn’t do anything with the game tied up,” Chryst said. “It’s the opportunity that come within plays or a game like that, that’s one where we had to put it together and didn’t.”
After going 6-for-6 on third-and-10 or longer in last week's 30-6 win at No.8 Michigan State, it was evident that quarterback Alex Hornibrook used up all his magic. Completing only nine of his 25 attempts for 88 yards, Hornibrook was picked off three times, twice in the fourth quarter after the Wolverines (5-0, 2-0) had taken their 14-7 lead.
He also didn’t get much help from the running game, which finished with 71 yards and 2.5 yards per carry (includind sacks and gaffes).
“We couldn’t really get any drives going,” Hornibrook said. “When we did, there were opportunities that we should have taken advantage of. I should have taken advantage of, and we just couldn’t execute on them.”
Wisconsin’s first half was a mess. Dropped picks (potentially a 100-yard pick-six by Lubern Figaro went through his hands), a couple dropped passes, missed opportunities for sacks, only crossing midfield once offense and benching the punter. Hardly a recipe for success.
Yet the Badgers only trailed 7-0 because Michigan kept stumbling over itself and were held to only 53 yards of offense on its final four drives of the half.
So when Cichy and Tindal combined for the turnover, and Hornibrook threw his best two passes of the day on timing routes, the second a 17-yard touchdown pass to tailback Dare Ogunbowale to tie the game, the Badgers were able to wipe the slate clean.
That’s at least one piece of the silver lining to take into the bye week for a team that now must learn to respond.
“It was a good stretch of games,” Watt said. “Now we’re going to rest our bodies, look at the film and get a good start on Ohio State.”