Badgers eager for challenge

Jonathan Orr is one of few current Badgers with recollection of playing UM; Bell has '01 in rearview mirror; making Saturday a ‘big game'; Wolverines more talented?

MADISON — Jonathan Orr grew up a Michigan fan.

"I think just about every kid in Michigan was probably a Michigan fan," said Orr, a native of Detroit.

The Wolverines recruited Orr, but not until late in process. He could not remember whether or not UM offered him a scholarship.

"I probably wasn't high on their list," said Orr, now a fifth-year senior wide receiver at the University of Wisconsin.

Orr does remember the last two times the Badgers played Michigan. Some of the memories are sweet — the excitement before the game, for instance. The feeling in the locker room afterwards was another story altogether.

"Both real quiet. Real quiet," Orr said. "The disappointment."

The disappointment.

Close is a disservice to the difference between victory and defeat the last two times Michigan and Wisconsin faced off.

Orr was redshirting in 2001, standing on the sidelines at Camp Randall Stadium as the Badgers collided with defeat just as victory appeared so tantalizingly within their grasp. UW's Mark Neuser missed a 36-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter with the score tied 17-17. The Badgers then forced UM to punt, but Hayden Epstein's punt bounded off then-true freshman Brett Bell's leg, giving the ball, and the game, to the Wolverines. Epstein knocked through his chip shot field goal in the waning moments for a 20-17 decision.

One year later Orr was a starter busy catching a school freshman single-season record 842 yards worth of passes. But on that afternoon in Ann Arbor he caught just one pass for 14 yards, and two touchdowns slipped through his hands in a 21-14 loss.

"I remember just a lot of mental mistakes we had made, myself included, and just our young receiving corps," Orr said.

As time expired in the first half, quarterback Brooks Bollinger tossed a hail marry into the air. Orr and true freshman receiver Brandon White went up for it, and probably either could have caught it. But they ended up knocking the ball out of each other's hands. Then, with UM ahead 21-14 with less than two minutes left in the game, Orr appeared to be interfered with (no penalty was called) as he tried to make a game-tying touchdown grab. Still, the pass was probably catchable

"It was a difficult play but a play that I'm definitely capable of making," Orr said. "And whether or not it was interference, it doesn't matter."

The plays were not easy ones for Orr to let go of.

"In this business you've got to be able to get over it or they come back to haunt you," Orr said. "One thing that we say all the time is don't let a team beat you twice. Or a play beat you twice. You've got to get over stuff. But that game, when you are young like that, it is hard to get over plays like that."

The Badgers have not beaten Michigan since 1994, but the six straight losses in between have been marked by their competitiveness. The last four games have been decided by a combined 17 points.

Orr is one of just seven current UW players who saw the field at Michigan Stadium in 2002. And only four current Wolverines participated in that game. So while the closeness of the recent matchups has come up a few times in the Badgers' team meetings this week, Orr said the focus has been squarely on this season.

"A lot of people on both teams weren't even there," Orr said. "So, these are two different teams and we just excited to compete, go out there Saturday."

In addition to Orr and White, five current Badgers played the last time Wisconsin met Michigan, a 2002 game at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Linebacker Dontez Sanders, then a safety, saw time in the defensive backfield and played on special teams. Linebacker Elliot Goode and cornerback Brett Bell (then a free safety) also played on special teams. Linebacker LaMarr Watkins was a starter that day and recorded his first career interception. Receiver Brandon Williams (then No. 25), caught three passes for 20 yards, but also dropped a touchdown pass.

"I just remember that we had a chance to win that game and we just let it get away from us," Williams said.

Bell puts past far behind him

It is a play he never thinks about, unless the memory is prodded back to life when other people want to talk about it.

When Brett Bell looks at his UW career, the 2001 special teams play that lives in Badger fan infamy is flung deep in the background of his rearview mirror.

"Not even on my mind," Bell said in July. "To be honest about it, I lost it, it was out of mind probably two, three weeks after it happened… It sucked when it happened but to be as honest as I can be it is a figment of my imagination."

Back in 2001, Bell was a true freshman on the punt return team, blocking down field. Only there was no punt returner, a fact that had not gotten to Bell due to miscommunication from the UW sideline. Epstein's punt took an odd carom and dashed off the side of Bell's leg, leaving it for Michigan's taking.

"You know, you always remember the one where we have all the momentum," UW head coach Barry Alvarez said this week, "we have an easy field goal kick right in front of the crossbars with less than a minute left [actually 1:26 to play], we're going to win the game, missed the kick and then, you know, the unfortunate thing with that crazy bounce hitting Brett… That was a gift."

Bell is now a fifth-year senior cornerback. He is the only current player on either roster to have played in the 2001 affair.

"I didn't get that much flak for it," Bell recalled. "My coaches were good about it, my teammates were good about it. So it wasn't, you know what I mean…. I grew from it. It happened."

Goal reached: Michigan a big game

According to Orr, the Badgers set six goals prior to this season. Two have already been accomplished: start the season 3-0 and make Sept. 24 against Michigan a big game.

"That was one of the goals that we set going into the season," Alvarez said. "We wanted to make this a big game. And we should have a great atmosphere."

Orr remembers the atmosphere the last two times UW played Michigan.

"Just big-time game, center stage," Orr said. "Everything that comes along with the atmosphere, all the hype. Just when you think about coming, when you choose to come to a school like this, these are the type of games that you dream about playing in. You could feel the electricity… in the air."

With Saturday's game against Michigan not kicking off until 5 p.m., several Badgers this week recalled UW's night game two years ago against Ohio State, which was another marquee contest that UW marked off on its calendar. The Badgers won that game, 17-10, snapping the defending national champions' 19-game winning streak.

"Michigan's always near the top of the league every year," UW junior quarterback John Stocco said. "We haven't played them the last couple years. I know myself and I know all the guys are really excited to play. It's going to be a great environment for us to play in here at home and we're just really excited for this game."

UW players from the Midwest grew up knowing all about Michigan. Some, including defensive tackle Nick Hayden, seriously considered a scholarship offer from the Wolverines.

"You know Michigan was one of my choices for going to school, so it's going to be a big rival for me and for the whole team," Hayden said. "It's going to be a good game. I'm excited for it."

Other players, such as sophomore defensive end Kurt Ware, a native of Spring, Texas, did not pay much attention to Michigan growing up.

"It's a big game," Ware said, adding that, as the Big Ten opener, the game will be a good gauge for where UW stands.

Is Michigan just more talented?

UW is a meager 2-7 versus the Wolverines since Barry Alvarez took over the Badgers' program in 1990. No other team has been a greater thorn in UW's side than Michigan.

At his press conference Monday, Alvarez was asked if the reason for the struggles was as simple as saying that the Wolverines are just that talented.

"I think it is as simple, just a simple fact that they're pretty good and always have (been)," Alvarez responded. "I think if you take a look at every other team in the league, there has been some slipping. Some teams have slipped and had years when they've had down years, but I can't remember a year when Michigan has been down. Their down years are pretty good years.

"They're very talented and their play has been very consistent over the years. Then they've continued to recruit well, and because of their tradition and location, I'm sure they'll continue to do that. But I think it's basically as simple as that."

So is Michigan simply the better program, with more talented players?

"I don't really know how to answer that," Stocco said. "All I know is they've had a lot of success, almost every year. They're always near the top. There's no question they have very good players there, and they have good coaching, and there's a lot of tradition there. And we're going to have to be at the top of our game."

UW defensive line coach John Palermo has an emphatic take on the comparison between Wisconsin and Michigan.

"The history of Michigan to me is not any better than the history of Wisconsin as far as I'm concerned," he said. "I've been here 15 years and we've either beat them or lost close games to them. As far as Michigan being better than Wisconsin that's never been a concern of mine. Same thing's true if it's Ohio State or anybody else we've played. So, in my mind Wisconsin's just as good as Michigan as far as program goes. So for us to be afraid because they're Michigan is nonsense."

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