Badgers remember Ann Arbor well

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Benjamin Worgull
Friday, November 19, 2010
— It was an innocent question directed to Bret Bielema after the Indiana game, asking if the University of Wisconsin’s fifth-year head football coach has allowed himself to do some scoreboard watching.

Bielema had mentioned minutes earlier that Northwestern knocked off Iowa, effectively taking one horse out of the Big Ten title race. His response to the key question was nothing about the present, but of an incident two years ago that continues to eat at him.

“Believe me, we all know what happened the last time we went to Michigan,” Bielema said. “We let something happen up there that was embarrassing to me, embarrassing to our program and put us on a tailspin there for a little while.

“If that doesn’t have a place in your stomach, there’s something wrong with you.”

“Tailspin” is a kind way of saying Michigan’s 27-25 victory two years ago plummeted the Badgers to record lows during the 2008 season, raising questions about the way Bielema coached, the lack of team discipline and the lack of leadership.

Senior Jay Valai says the game still holds a pit in his stomach, and he can point to the exact moment things turned.

Wisconsin dominated the first half in creating five first-half turnovers and plenty of yards, but the offense settled for four field goals instead of touchdowns on five drives. Still, the Badgers built a 19-0 halftime lead and caused Michigan fans to boo the Wolverines off the field.

Valai remembers guys gloating in the visiting locker room, thinking the game was over and not paying attention when the coaching staff said to treat the score like it’s 0-0. The next time the Badgers stepped into that locker room, the Michigan band was piping “Hail to the Victors” in celebratory fashion.

Consider it a lesson learned for a school that hasn’t won in Michigan Stadium since 1994 and is 0-5 at the Big House during that stretch.

“Don’t count your eggs before they’re hatched, because that’s what we did at halftime,” Valai said.

“We listened, but we didn’t execute. From top to bottom, we didn’t perform, and they beat us.”

The largest come-from-behind home victory in Michigan history was the first of four straight losses for Wisconsin and six overall in a season that Bielema rarely talks about.

Maybe that’s why he caught his players’ attention by mentioning it in the locker room minutes after Wisconsin crushed Indiana, 83-20, at Camp Randall last Saturday.

“I think about that game all the time,” said senior UW cornerback Niles Brinkley, who says the game was one of his low moments in his career. “That was a huge game in our history here, our legacy here.

“It should give us precedence on stuff like that. We can’t allow us to do as well as we did in the first half, only to flop in the second half.”

Times have changed for both programs since that bleak Badger experience, which makes sixth-ranked Wisconsin’s visit to Michigan on Saturday very intriguing.

The Badgers (9-1, 5-1 Big Ten) are disciplined—leading the country in fewest penalties per game with an average of 3.1. They also are effective—ranking eighth in the country in scoring with a 40.2 average and leading the country with a .811 red-zone touchdown percentage.

Michigan (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) has regressed defensively from two years ago and is last in the conference in total defense, yielding 433.9 yards per game, and pass defense (270.2).

But the Wolverines have flourished offensively with sophomore quarterbacks Denard Robinson, who is averaging 340.7 yards of total offense per game, and Tate Forcier, who helped Michigan defeat Illinois in a 67-65, triple-overtime thriller two weeks ago.

“With Michigan being the No. 1 rushing offense in the Big Ten, they can make plays, but that was a bad defensive game,” Brinkley said of the Illinois game. “A lot of guys were just opened in that game, so we have to try to eliminate the big plays and make them one-dimensional. Make them throw the ball, and take away those big plays.”

Wisconsin is 2-for-2 on its 2010 redemption, making up for losses last year against Ohio State and Iowa in back-to-back weeks. But with the chance to bury its biggest bugaboo of all, and potentially just two wins away from the program’s first Rose Bowl berth in 11 years, it’s been business as usual this week for the highly confident Badgers.

“A lot of people would say there would be a lot of reasons for us to have a higher intensity, but we have prepared extremely hard every single week and had a lot of intensity all year,” junior defensive end J.J. Watt said.

“This week is no different. We want to win for this program and for the state of Wisconsin.

“This game is bigger than the 2008 game and bigger than just one game. We understand what’s at stake. We don’t like to talk about, but we all understand what’s waiting if we take care of our business.”

Last updated: 3:26 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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