While taking precautions due to a rise in COVID cases, the No. 13 Wisconsin Badgers (2-0) cancelled games in back-to-back weeks, ceasing football activities, while trying to get the team’s outbreak under control.
The two-week hiatus proved to not impact the team on the field, as they dominated the Michigan Wolverines (1-3), 49-11, in their return to competition.
Wisconsin forced a turnover on Michigan’s opening drive, just as it did in the season opener against the Illinois Fighting Illini. This time, Scott Nelson, who was seeing his first action since tearing his ACL in 2019, intercepted Michigan’s Joe Milton off an Eric Burrell pass break up.
Just as they did in the opener, the Badgers used the turnover to catapult themselves to an early lead, following a four-play, 33-yard scoring drive that ended with a two-yard Nakia Watson touchdown run.
Wisconsin picked off Milton on his next pass attempt as well, this time Leo Chenal intercepted Milton, who did not see the second-year linebacker in the middle of the field. Chenal returned the interception 31 yards into the redzone, setting up a 4-play, 14-yard scoring drive, which was capped off by a Graham Mertz touchdown pass, to fullback Mason Stokke.
LB Leo Chenal on his interception: "I was not expecting that. That came right to my chest. As soon as I caught that I’m like, 'Wow, what just happened?' I just started running. All my teammates gave me a hard time for not scoring a touchdown."— Jesse Temple (@jessetemple) November 15, 2020
Both Watson and Stokke would each add a second touchdown in the first half.
Mertz, who had been working through COVID protocols since his record-setting first career start, was a question mark heading into the game and was listed, along with Danny Vanden Boom, as possible starters for the game.
However, Mertz got the start and finished 12-of-22, for 127 yards and two touchdowns. His second passing touchdown of the game, went to Jake Ferguson who Mertz connected with for scores three times in the season opener.
Ferguson paced the Badgers with four receptions for 51 yards, to go along with his fourth touchdown of the season.
Where Wisconsin truly shined this week was running the ball, particularly while running jet sweeps and reverses. Four receivers combined for 10 carries in the game, led by Danny Davis III, who carried the ball seven times for 65 yards and a touchdown.
Freshman receiver Chimere Dike started things off, taking a reverse for a 30-yard gain, which helped setup Wisconsin’s opening score.
Overall, Wisconsin rushed for 341 yards, led by freshman Jalen Berger who was making his Wisconsin debut since Wisconsin’s offense was depleted due to multiple inactive players, including Garrett Groshek.
Berger rushed 14 times for 85 yards and a touchdown.
Including Berger, Davis and Dike, Wisconsin finished with five different players who rushed for at least 30 yards. Fullback John Chenal and Watson rounded out the group. Chenal finished with 71 yards, including a 43-yard rush, to open a scoring drive, while Watson rushed for 65 yards.
Thanks to the effectiveness of the run game, Wisconsin held a 40:15-19:45 edge in time of possession and went 8-for-13 on third down conversions.
While Wisconsin found moving the ball against the Michigan defense to be an easy task, the Wolverines often found themselves struggling to get anything going when they were on offense.
Overall, Michigan amassed just 47 yards on the ground, and 172 through the air, for a total of 219 yards and was just 3-for-11 on third down conversions. Michigan also had five drives that ended in three-and-outs. Overall they had 11 drives and only two of them ended in scores.
The Wolverines did not gain a first down until late in the second quarter, when Michigan had a 13-play, 74-yard drive, which ended with Milton getting stopped on fourth and goal.
With the deficit growing, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh stuck with Joe MIlton, despite his inability to move the Wolverine offense. Milton finished 9-of-19 for 98 yards and the two early interceptions.
It wasn’t until Harbaugh benched Milton, in favor of Cade McNamara late in the third quarter, that Michigan showed signs of life against the mighty Wisconsin defense.
In McNamara’s opening drive, he went 3-of-3 for 74 yard and a touchdown pass to Mike Sainristil, whose only catch of the game was the 23-yard score. McNamara then completed the 2-point conversion attempt to Giles Jackson.
However, McNamara’s success against the Wisconsin defense was short-lived, as he finished the game just 4-of-7, for 74 yards and only completed one of his final four pass attempts.
The loss drops Michigan to 1-3, which is the school’s worst four-game start to a season, since 1967.
Wisconsin will travel to Evanston, Ill. next Saturday in a battle of B1G West unbeatens, as they match up with No. 23 Northwestern (4-0).