“Anytime you play Wisconsin, it’s circled on the calendar,” graduate student defensive lineman Donovan Jeter said. “You know who they are. When you say Wisconsin, you know what kind of energy comes with that.”
Reputations can often be overblown, but the Badgers’ reputation as a run-heavy, beat-you-up, physical football team is about as far as you can get from one of those cases. The fact that there are eight Wisconsin alumni currently playing offensive line in the NFL makes that quite obvious, and the addition of five running backs, led by Melvin Gordon and Jonathan Taylor, closes any remaining debate.
Wisconsin sits alongside No. 14 Michigan as a high-profile program with a reputation for playing old-school, three yards and a cloud of dust-style football, and though we are living in the year 2021, it is likely that this game will look like a flashback to 1970’s era Big Ten football.
“It’s four quarters of just 9-on-7,” Jeter said. “It’s going to be physical, it’s not going to be a pretty game. It’s going to be real ugly and rugged and physical”
Offensively, speaking, the Wolverines have received a lot of flak for the absence of their passing attack, and this is not the week in which anyone should expect that to change. For better or for worse, this Michigan-Wisconsin battle will be fought in the same place as all the others — the trenches.
Michigan has expressed their offensive strength as pounding the ball on the ground in each of the Wolverines' first four games, but Michigan’s offensive line, tight ends, and running backs are currently preparing for a challenge the likes of which they are yet to face this year.
Through three games, Wisconsin has only given up 69 yards rushing, exactly 23 yards a game. And that’s not even with the aid of having taken a commanding lead early in the game, and thus forcing trailing opponents into a pass-heavy attack. The Badgers have lost two of their three games, including a 41-13 defeat against No. 9 Notre Dame that provided plenty of time for garbage time rushing yards. And yet, there were none to be found. Opposing teams have rushed 68 times against Wisconsin, and, as the math shows, they have had, on average, only a single yard to show for each attempt.
Michigan’s two-headed monster of sophomore running back Blake Corum and senior running back Hassan Haskins have dominated three of the Wolverines’ first four opponents, but they will face a much harsher test on Saturday. With that being the case, and with this Saturday also being Michigan’s first game away from Ann Arbor, a lot will be determined based on how the Wolverines respond to bad outcomes.
“It’s really just handling adversity and not letting one bad play turn into two bad plays and so on,” Jeter said. “Obviously, you’ve got to be lights out. You’ve got to be physical, you’ve got to communicate.”
Jeter obviously says this all from the defensive perspective, as his unit must prepare to take on Wisconsin’s perennially top-tier offensive line and running game, but his insights apply to the offense as well.
“Every year when we play Wisconsin, we know they’re going to be one of the best defenses we face,” senior offensive lineman Ryan Hayes said. “We’re going to take this week as seriously as we can; we’re going to have our best week of practice and get ready.”
Players on each side of the ball will have their work cut out for them, and both units will need to come ready to communicate in order to fend off the 80,000 Badger faithful in Camp Randall Stadium. There will be unique challenges for both the offense and the defense as they play in their first game in front of a hostile crowd in nearly two calendar years, but the more enthralling battle will be the one occurring at the line of scrimmage.
After all: “Yeah, you're going to get the bear,” Jeter said. “And the bear’s going to get you sometimes.”
Saturday’s game will be about whether the Wolverines can get the bear, or rather, the Badger, more times than it gets them.