He struggled early, but, according to UW coach Bret Bielema, it's not how you start, it's how you finished.
He started with an interception that was thrown among three Michigan defenders and got hit from his blind side, causing a fumble that was returned 14 yards for a Michigan touchdown. After that, junior quarterback Scott Tolzien was nearly flawless.
His numbers (16-of-24 for 240 yards) were solid, but it was his four touchdown passes that sparked the offense; four TDs that tied his career high set earlier in the year against Michigan State.
"It really means a lot to us as a team having a leader out there being physical along with the rest of us," senior captain Mickey Turner said of Tolzien.
Tolzien became just the third player in UW history throw four touchdowns in a game twice in a season, joining Darrell Bevell (1993) and Jim Sorgi (2003). Throw in the fact that Tolzien's 14 TD passes are already more than UW had in 13 games last season, and there's no question what the junior has meant to the team.
Just 10 games into his starting career, Tolzien already has the confidence to recognize a sticky situation and save the Badgers. After a holding penalty forced the Badgers into a first-and-20 at their own 24, the Badgers wanted to run a ‘Jet' package, handing the ball to Gilreath on a wide receiver option.
With UW having the wrong package on the field and Tolzien wanting to conserve timeouts, he audibled out of a play and called one to the right. The result was a 33-yard gain for Clay that sparked a 66-yard drive that ended with Tolzien's touchdown pass to tight end Lance Kendricks.
Moreover, Tolzien helped UW convert on all six of its red zone chances, including five touchdowns. For the season, UW has converted 78 percent of its red-zone trips into touchdowns, a big reason why UW has a chance to win 11 games.
Entering the game as the Big Ten's leading rusher, sophomore John Clay didn't disappoint, yet again.
Going over 100-yard rushing for the third straight game, the sixth time this season and the ninth time in his career, Clay ran for 151 yards and scored his 12th touchdown of the season late in the second quarter, giving UW the lead back right before halftime.
"It's another ‘W' against a Big Ten opponent, an excellent Big Ten school," Clay said. "We're just moving up the charts … This offense is explosive. Once we get going in a rhythm, it's hard for us to be stopped."
Clay also went over the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career, becoming the 13th different Badger, and just the sixth sophomore, to earn that achievement. His 2,008 career rushing yards puts him into 11th place all-time at UW.
"It's something you have to have here to be successful, and Clay has done a great job," Turner said. "Hopefully that carries on for the rest of us … He's had 100 yards all over the place"
Clay was also incredibly classy, seeking out his offensive lineman as the game was winding down to thank them for their efforts. With the help of Montee Ball (16 carries, 62 yards), the Badgers held the ball for 8:08 on their final drive, running 15 straight running plays to earn 60 yards and a field goal, giving UM's offense only two minutes to work with.
"(It's) establishing Wisconsin football," Clay said. "It's hard-nosed, running-down-hill football."
Senior tight end Garrett Graham scored his first touchdown since September 26, a 22-yard strike to open the scoring in the first quarter that was shear athleticism. Graham caught the pass in the middle of the field, out raced the defense to the pylon and dove over the goal line.
"It was great," Graham said. "I really don't get the ball much on that play, but it worked out and it was great to get in the end zone. Offensively, it was just a great day. I don't think we could have done much more than we did."
Nick Toon continues to establish himself as the go-to wide receiver on the UW roster, catching five passes – tied for the team-high with Graham – for a team-best 98 yards and his first career multi-score game.
Isaac Anderson grabbed four passes for 65 yards, including a lot of catches where he shook coverage to be wide open.
Michigan senior defensive end Brandon Graham might be the best defensive end the Badgers will see the rest of the season. They better hope so, because Graham was on fire through the first 30-plus minutes, registering 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble on Tolzien that was returned for a touchdown and a quarterback hurry.
"Coming in Sunday after the Indiana game, you could tell this guy was the real deal," Tolzien said of Graham. "The guy's a really good player."
UW figured out how to neutralize him after halftime, run the football. In the final three series, where UW's sole mission was to run down the clock, the Badgers ran 27 times and Graham could manage no more success.
"We took away his opportunity to really get out there and wreak some havoc in the backfield," junior guard John Moffitt said.
Gabe Carimi was flagged for holding on back-to-back series in the third quarter, although both looked like questionable calls because the junior had his hands inside the shoulder pads.
With Josh Oglesby unable to go, junior Jake Bscherer stepped in and held ground. In fact, all of UW's linemen deserve a pat on the back. How many times do you see a Wisconsin running game rack up 229 yards against Michigan? Not many.
Wisconsin's defense has showed, stopping all six of its conference opponents and nine of its last 10 to under 100 total rushing yards. Even with the Wolverines bringing in the conference's top rushing attack, racking up 208.3 yards per game, the Badgers added another victim to the list, holding Michigan to 71 net rushing yards.
Players of the day were senior defensive tackle Jeff Stehle and O'Brien Schofield. Stehle had two TFLs in his entire career, but equaled that mark on back-to-back TFLs for 14 yards, including a 10-yard QB sack. Stehle finished with three tackles.
Schofield was, again, stellar, registering seven tackles, two QB hurries, one TFL and a half sack. UW was able to get plenty of solid pressure into Michigan's backfield, which disrupted a lot of continuity on the offense.
"There was offense was able to get some big plays at certain points in the game, but we really had to lock in and read our keys," Schofield said. "I think that was a big part of that … We were active, Guys were running to the football and making plays you wouldn't think a defensive lineman could normally make."
That's one thing about Schofield this season – he's make the impossible look easy.
Chris Borland led the Badgers in tackles, setting a new career-high with 11 stops and 1.5 TFLs … ho hum. Borland wasn't perfect, as he was responsible for the containment breakdown in the first quarter when Michigan converted 3rd-and-24, leading to a touchdown.
"Every rep is a learning experience for him," Bielema said.
UW defense limited Michigan to only 106 second-half yards and the conference's top scoring offense (32 ppg) only to be held to seven second-half points. Four of UW's top five tacklers were linebackers – Borland, Blake Sorensen (7), Culmer St. Jean (7) and Jaw McFadden (6, including 2.5 TFLs).
After allowing quarterback Tate Forcier to throw for 139 yards and a touchdown in the first half, UW's secondary limited the freshman after halftime to only 49 passing yards and a third-quarter interception, courtesy of junior Niles Brinkley.
It was a bounce back game for Brinkley, who was burned for several big plays the week before against Indiana. Facing a third-and-9, Forcier lofted a deep pass intended for Darryl Stonum, but Brinkley was in tight coverage and made his second pick of the season and sixth of his career.
Had that play happened a week ago, it might have gone for a touchdown, showing a quick turnaround for Brinkley.
"Last week, my technique kind of failed and I just didn't make a play on the ball," Brinkley said. "This week in practice, I really focused on trying to high-point the ball, stay on top of the receivers and play the technique that the coaches taught us."
Jay Valai was the leading tackler for the unit, registering four stops.
It appears David Gilreath's time as a kick returner has run out, at least for now After splitting time with Gilreath, Isaac Anderson seems to be the man for the job. Anderson had two returns for 55 yards, including one in the second half that he bounced outside for a 29-yard gain.
"I think it should be solidified by this game," Anderson said. "I think I did a pretty good job, definitely could have done better. I appreciate coach Bielema giving me the opportunity to be back there and show my ability."
Gilreath was back fielding punts, but had little success (two returns, five yards). Philip Welch's day was quiet, making a simple 28-yard attempt in the fourth quarter, but he kicked the opening kickoff out of bounds on a non-windy day, which is inexcusable. Brad Nortman punted just once, but it was from his own end line, causing him to not get much on the kick. The punt went 34 yards and put Michigan in business at the UW 37.
Michigan would have scored points on that drive, but UW's defensive line stopped the Wolverines three times inside the three-yard line and J.J. Watt got his hands up to block a 19-yard field goal. It's the Badgers first blocked field goal since the 2008 Outback Bowl.