But a muffed punt, dropped passes, poor protection and the inability to stop Michigan's Mario Manningham spelled disaster in the second half for the Badgers as they succumbed to the No.6 Wolverines 27-13 in Ann Arbor.
Things certainly didn't look that way from the beginning for the Badgers, as Wisconsin started the game off with a bang, stopping Michigan's first drive when Allen Langford intercepted Michigan quarterback Chad Henne's third down attempt.
From there, Wisconsin's offense, which had struggled mightily to find rhythm in there last two games, marched right down the field against the top defense in the Big Ten. Engineered by a struggling John Stocco and workhorse P.J. Hill, the Badgers used a combination of a power running game and precession passing to march 60 yards down the field in five plays, which ended with a 29-yard catch-and-run pass from Stocco to Hill for the touchdown.
Things only got better for the Badgers, as they squelched the next two Michigan drives by putting pressure on Henne. The Wolverines second drive ended in a quarterback sack and Michigan's third drive ended when Henne couldn't convert a fourth-and-one inside UW's 20.
"We had a couple plays that we talked about all week," head coach Bret Bielema said. "We knew that they get in the redzone and like to go [running] on third down with the ball rolling for them on the far sideline. That is something that they have done repeatedly. We tried to work it and put ourselves in a positive situation."
However, that was the last time Wisconsin could generate any momentum. The Badgers quietly went three-and-out and Chad Henne made up for his mistake, connecting with sophomore wide receiver Mario Manningham for a 24-yard touchdown to tie the score at seven.
After Wisconsin answered back with a 40-yard Taylor Mehlhaff field goal and forced Michigan to go three-and-out, Wisconsin looked primed to pad their lead going into halftime. That all quickly changed with punt returner Zach Hampton muffed a 56-yard Michigan punt inside Wisconsin's 30. Hampton paid the price for his mistake, getting clocked by a Michigan defender and the Wolverines recovered the loose ball at the UW 18-yard line.
"I wasn't deep enough for the wind, I guess," Hampton said. "I just took my eyes off it at the last second and basically that's what happened. I should have problem fell on it. I tried to pick it because I knew there was a double team on one side, but I guess it [was broken]."
Once again, the stingy Badger defense came up with a huge stop, only allowing Michigan to gain four yards inside the redzone. Michigan kicker Garrett Rivas kicked a 31-yard consolation field goal and both teams went into the half, tied at 10.
However, whatever momentum Wisconsin took going into halftime was left in the locker room, as the second half story became Wisconsin inept third down conversions and the inability to stop Michigan's offense.
After going 10-for-17 in the first half, Stocco was out of sync again with his receivers, completing 12-of-25 passes in the second half and forced to throw multiple third down passes into the sidelines. At one point in the game, Wisconsin went three-and-out on eight straight possessions, giving the Wolverines excellent field position.
"It's frustrating, especially when the defense was playing so well," Stocco said. "It didn't help having bad field position. A couple of those drives, if we get first downs, move the sticks and change the field position, it could be a much different game.
"When you are starting off behind the chains and going up a defense like that with third and ten or long situations, it is tough because they are a tough defense. We can help ourselves a lot by being more efficient on first down by both running the football and throwing it."
P.J. Hill was also stuck behind an offensive line that couldn't block. Frequent penetration into the backfield and delayed blitzes forced Hill to try to make something out of nothing. After gaining 45 yards in the first half, Hill could only muster 19 more yards on the ground in the second half and was held under 100 yards for the first time this season.
"One of our first goals was to run the football with persistence and power and we were not able to do that, especially in the second half," Bielema said. "I do not know if they did anything schematically. There were a couple of adjustments that they made and they had some pretty good tackles [that] really cleaned up on the field."
"They are not a team that is designed to play from behind," Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr said. "They have a lot of young receivers and an excellent offensive line. As long as it was 10-10, that's the way that they want to play. Once they got down by two scores, then they had to throw the football. That's where we took control of the game."
Despite throwing three interceptions in the game, Chad Henne was given too many chances with good field position not to covert. He did so midway through the third quarter, finding Manningham down the right sideline for a 38-yard touchdown and gave Michigan a lead they would not relinquish.
"Those interceptions, I'll accept two of them and the third one we should have caught the ball. Chad Henne made two outstanding throws for touchdowns, plus he made maybe the best throw of this career on the run when he hit Adrian Arrington on our third touchdown drive. I thought Henne played extremely well."
After Wisconsin had called two timeouts within three plays and Michigan kick returnee Steve Breaston had another excellent return, Badgers fans could almost sense the end was near, as the second half defensive meltdown continued. Michigan's Mike Hart put the final nail in the coffin, as he rumbled five-yards through Badger mistackles to put Michigan up by 14. For the game, Breaston returned nine punts for 116 yards and made the Badger defense look very penetrable and sluggish.
"Breaston is a good player – he does well," Hampton said. "He fields the ball well and makes right decisions. … There punt return team did really well. They worked hard and we didn't work hard enough."
The glaring statistic of the game was the discrepancy in total yardage between the Badgers and Michigan. Michigan lived up to their billing as the Big Ten's top rush defense by only allowing Wisconsin 12 net rushing yards in the game. On the day, Wisconsin only gained 248 total yards, 115 in the second half, compared to Michigan's 322 total yards.
"We're talking all week about making it a four quarter game," Stocco said. "We had been in some tight games before and we are really good in the fourth quarter. We started off the game well, but we just stalled on offense in the middle of the game. That's something we have to look at and figured out why we weren't able to move the ball. The defense played their buts off but we have to give [Michigan] credit. They are a very good football team."
After regrouping, Wisconsin will venture off onto the road again to play Indiana in their Big Ten opener. The game will mark the return of Hoosier head coach Terry Hoeppner, who has missed the last two weeks after brain surgery. Although there were some positives from today's game, head coach Bret Bielema knows that corrections need to be made to prevent Wisconsin from losing two in a row.
"There are things that happened today that our guys responded to very, very well and there's that happened out there that we had poor response. The biggest thing is we can't let these guys get us twice. We need to respond, have a positive practice tomorrow, go out there and execute our corrections and be able to move forward."