Wisconsin lost starters Jason Chapman and Allen Langford in last weekend's 21-point loss to No.1 Ohio State, and with a potent Michigan offense coming in for the home finale, the Badgers 24-1 home record since the start of 2004 looked to have another blemish added to their list.
But with a freshman nickel corner, a rusty defensive tackle filling the holes and a revamped offensive line, the Badgers proved that their ‘Next Man In' philosophy isn't just a saying anymore.
With Aaron Henry spending most of his time being Michigan WR Greg Mathews and Adrian Arrington's shadow, junior Mike Newkirk moving back to his preferred defensive tackle position and a jumbled offensive line, the Badgers hardly missed a beat, beating the No.13 Michigan Wolverines 37-21.
"Any given week, anybody can go down and that's the game of college football," Henry said. "You don't know when injuries are going to come. Throughout the week, we prepared all of our guys. If someone does go down, somebody is going to have to step up."
Although only a freshman, Henry had been making heads turn since he got to campus and started competing in fall camp. Possessing exceptional speed and the ability to quickly correct his mistakes, Henry had been used all season long in Wisconsin's nickel package, having to fill in sparingly at times when cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu was relegated to the sidelines because of various injuries.
But when Langford went down with a season-ending knee injury, Henry knew coming into the week that he was going to be the No.2 cornerback and be assigned to help cover the best wide receiving unit in the conference.
"By far, Michigan has the best receiving core in the Big Ten, probably the nation," Henry said. "From (Mario) Manningham to Arrington to Mathews, they have some real good and legit wide receivers."
Henry's assignment for Saturday was to play across from Ikegwuonu and his primary target Manningham. That left Henry with Arrington and Mathews, who had combined for 77 catches, 868 yards and eight touchdowns so far in 2007.
Although Arrington snuck by Henry to catch a 26-yard pass from quarterback Ryan Mallett midway through the fourth quarter, the freshman shut down Mathews all afternoon, limiting the sophomore to just three catches and 46 yards.
"This week of preparation was totally different than any of my other weeks of preparation," Henry said. "I was coming in as the starter and I had to prepare myself both mentally and physically and for what Michigan was going to throw at us. They have a very good receiving core and I had to just go out there and compete."
While Henry was doing his best to shut down the passing game, junior Mike Newkirk and his defensive line mates up front where shutting down a powerful Michigan running game. Already behind the eight ball without senior running back and emotional leader Mike Hart in the lineup, Michigan could only amass 47 total rushing yards, its lowest total of the season by 53 yards.
"Our defensive front took away their running game and had a huge impact on the game," head coach Bret Bielema said.
Starting all 10 games at left end out of necessity for the Badgers this season, Newkirk returned to the defensive tackle position, a position where he started all 13 games last season, making 29 tackles.
"The biggest thing when I am inside is I just get to go, put my hand in the dirt, let loose a little bit and just play," Newkirk said. "I take pride, no matter where I line up, in the job I do. It's really fun to compete."
Even the Badger offense had to overcome their fair share of trials and tribulations. With P.J. Hill not expected to play much, the workload at running back was expected to be shared between sophomore Lance Smith and freshman Zach Brown. Smith seemed up to the challenge, carrying 10 times for 52 yards in the first half, but a late second-half carry jarred his shoulder and the sophomore didn't return.
Thing seemed so desperate that the injured Hill even suited up for a drive, carrying the ball five times for 14 yards.
Even so, for the second week in a row, Brown carried the workload. After registering 63 yards against the Buckeyes, Brown had a career high in attempts (27) and broke the 100-yard barrier for the first time in his young career, finishing the game with 108 yards and a career-best two touchdowns.
"We like what Zach's doing and during the course of the week, he's done good things," Bielema said.
Brown's play against Michigan Saturday was a testament to the extensive work of his offensive line the week leading up to the game, as the whole right side of the line was changed around.
Junior Kraig Urbik moved from right guard to right tackle in replace of Eric Vanden Heuvel, who injured his knee in the second half last weekend in Columbus. Taking Urbik's place was freshman John Moffitt, who had played sparingly at left guard in the absence of Andy Kemp, who returned for the first time in three weeks after breaking his hand against Penn State.
Even with the whole offensive line jumbled and shifted, the Badger linemen never felt out of their element, especially with a whole week to work out the kinks.
"It all started with preparation starting Sunday after the Ohio State game when we knew (Vanden Heuvel) might not be able to play," Kemp said. On Tuesday, (offensive line) coach (Bob) Palcic told Urbik and I that we would be playing guard and tackle. That's where it all started and that's why we played pretty well."
Despite missing six starters from their opening day roster, the Badgers never flinched against the Wolverines, even when they saw their 16-point lead cut to two. Now with two games left in their 2007 season, the Badgers now know the strength of their players that are ‘filling' the holes.
"If you always prepare to win and prepare like you're going to (start), that's the reason why guys have success," senior captain Ben Strickland said. "That's the way we have gone about it and guys have gone about it this year. They know that everyone is one injury away."