Wisconsin needed to send a message….to itself.
Following Tar Heel Michael Waddell's 97-yard kickoff return for touchdown to open the game, the Badgers were facing the prospect of a first-drive three-and-out.
Wisconsin faced a fourth-and-less-than-one at its own 40. Less than a yard should not be a big deal to any football team, let alone a team known for power football. But convention, and some may say sanity, would dictate that with the ball nestled precariously on the Badgers side of the field, and Wisconsin already trailing 7-0, this was a risk not worth taking.
But the Badgers faced a critical juncture. A three-and-out following UNC's opening kickoff score, where Waddell was not even touched during his 97-yard jaunt, would be a huge victory for the Tar Heels. Wisconsin, meanwhile, was coming off a particularly poor offensive showing against UNLV.
"I was trying to make a statement that I had confidence in the offensive line," Badger coach Barry Alvarez said. "I told them all week that we wanted to establish the running game. I didn't want their offense back on the field. We came here to win the game. I think we can go make a yard."
The Badgers picked up the first down. The play did not propel Wisconsin on that drive—they punted four plays later—but it did send a message to Wisconsin's linemen and the team.
Wisconsin made a point of running the football Saturday and the Badgers offensive line got the job done, opening up sizeable lanes for Booker Stanley, Dwayne Smith and even fullback Matt Bernstein, who had 16 yards on four carries, including a 10-yard burst up the middle.
The line was controlling the trenches so well that its only frustration seemingly came following Wisconsin's late first half interception. On first and goal from the six, Jim Sorgi overthrew Brandon Williams and North Carolina strong safety Mahlon Carey came down with his second of two interceptions.
"Well my linemen were upset with me that we didn't run the ball on that throw," Alvarez said. "They wanted to run a power."
"We are always upset when we don't run the ball that close to the goal line," left tackle Morgan Davis said. "We knew what we can do—(Bernstein) had just had 10 yards right up the middle."
When the Badgers returned to the field in the second half,
the trademark power running game took over. The Badgers ran the ball 24 times
against just five pass attempts after intermission, and finished the game with
209 yards rushing.
Wisconsin's line—left tackle Davis, left guard Dan Buenning, center Donovan Raiola, right guard Jonathan Clinkscale, right tackle Mike Lorenz and tight end Tony Paciotti (who despite catching his first career pass in his 13th start ought to be considered the team's sixth lineman)—responded by mauling the Tar Heels front seven. Only the combined efforts of Carey and Tar Heel free safety Dexter Reid, who combined for 27 tackles, could keep the Badgers offensive line and tailback Booker Stanley from running absolutely rampant in the final 30 minutes of play.
"They (the offensive line) had a very determined look at halftime where they wanted to control the football game, and they did," offensive coordinator Brian White said. "I think it is an excellent line. It is a very physical line."