Saturday will be an emotional day for 15 seniors in Wisconsin Badgers uniforms. It will be their final appearance in the Cardinal and White at Camp Randall Stadium.
But, that group will also have a bit of extra emotion saved up for avenging a loss everyone on the team would have liked back last season — to Michigan nonetheless.
A 14-7 loss to Michigan, in the first meeting between these two teams since 2011, still stings for the Badgers. It was the first of three losses on the season, but the one that stings the most according to some players.
“We had those three losses last year, but that was the one — we never want to be outplayed,” senior tight end Troy Fumagalli said to Badger247. “They were big and physical. They outplayed us last year and there’s no other way to say it.
“I think a lot of the guys that played in that remember that and carry a chip on their shoulder going into this game.”
Wisconsin mustered up just 159 yards of offense, and uncharacteristically couldn’t find anything going in the run game.
“It was a bad feeling, we played really bad,” said junior left tackle Michael Deiter. “We couldn’t run the ball. It was just a big stalemate all day and we couldn’t get any movement.”
UW had just 71 yards on 28 carries and no touchdowns via the ground, also going just 4-of-15 on third downs. Things didn’t get any better thanks to three turnovers in that game.
Just about everything on the stat sheet is different for the Badgers offense in 2017 though.
There’s no stat line that is likely to tell the Badgers tale on Saturday than the run game. Wisconsin comes in ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing (245 yards/game), while Michigan comes in third at 110.3 yards per game to opponents.
UW is 24th in the country in scoring offense (36.3 points per game) and racks up 433.1 yards per game too. A lot of that is thanks to true freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who has put up 1,525 yards (3rd nationally) and 152.5 yards per game (4th nationally), and a stable of young wide receivers coming in to their own.
About the only thing that isn’t different is the fact that sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook can’t stop throwing bad interceptions.
Last season, Hornibrook threw three interceptions in this contest, none bigger than an underthrow of a deep ball that could’ve given Wisconsin a tie ballgame late. Jourdan Lewis got the pick and sealed the win for the Wolverines.
This season, Hornibrook has been more efficient, but hasn’t dropped the interceptions. In fact, they have been more costly, including a pair of pick-sixes last weekend against Iowa. On the year, Hornibrook’s 12 interceptions are second worst amongst all Big Ten quarterbacks. He also does sport 17 touchdown passes and has shown a crazy ability to overcome bad mistakes.
But, no question looms larger over this game than which offense can actually make the other defense blink.
Wisconsin’s offense is under no illusions that anything is going to come easy this weekend.
“They’re good, man,” said offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, via Badger247. “Those d-lineman, they stand out. They can make plays individually, win 1-on-1’s, explosive guys inside, edge rushers, they can play the run, they can rush the passer. Their backers can fly to the ball, get off blocks. When you see teams consistently win 1-on-1’s, that’s a sign they’re pretty athletic.”
The Wolverines defense is easily the biggest challenge Wisconsin’s offense is going to face. Mistakes have to be limited and turnovers kept down too. Consider that advantage Michigan, as the Badgers haven’t been able to do either for most of the season and have survived despite bad turnovers and untimely penalties on offense.
On the flip side, UW’s defense is giving up just 81.5 yards per game to opponents on the ground. Michigan comes in to Saturday finally finding its footing in the run game as of late. The Wolverines have gone for over 200 yards rushing in three of the last five games.
A season-long drain at quarterback seems to have finally stopped with the insertion of Brandon Peters at quarterback.
The Wolverines had to insert him after Wilton Speight went down with injury and his backup, John O’Korn, was highly ineffective in his sted. Peters has responded with confidence and the offense has taken off with him in the mix.
Peters has completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 329 yards and four touchdowns to zero interceptions on the year.
While the yardage may not seem like much, his ability to not throw interceptions has led to an offense that is clicking like it never did before. Junior running back Karan Higdon has emerged as a threat in the run game at exactly the same time as Peters was inserted.
At a minimum that is down to teams having to respect a passer who can, you know, actually pass the football effectively. Not being able to consistently jam eight or nine players in the box makes for a much better time for a pro-style offense.
But, it should be noted that just as the Wolverines have busted for over 200 yards as a team in three of the last five games, Higdon has gone over the 100-yard mark in each of those games.
However, he was held to just 45 yards against Penn State in a loss and last week only had 50 yards on 10 carries in a win over Maryland.
Something is going to have to give in this matchup in Madison, and while Michigan may look for motivation in playing spoiler the rest of this season, the Badgers will clearly be looking for semblance of revenge for last season themselves.
It doesn’t hurt that getting said revenge would also mean an 11-0 record and a senior class going out with a victory once again. Just don’t expect revenge to be Wisconsin’s biggest motivation.