MADISON, Wis. (AP)—For long-suffering conference rivals looking to throw some grief back at the once-dominant Michigan Wolverines, now’s the time.
Have at it, Badgers.
No. 21 Wisconsin became the latest Big Ten team to get the best of the reeling Wolverines and coach Rich Rodriguez, winning 45-24 Saturday behind four touchdown passes and a TD sneak from quarterback Scott Tolzien.
“Scotty had a big grin on his face walking off the field,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. “To beat Michigan is a big deal.”
It was sweet redemption on Senior Day for the Badgers (8-2, 5-2), who watched last year’s promising season unravel after blowing a big lead in the Big House last year. Wisconsin has regained momentum in what is shaping up to be a better-than-expected 2009 campaign, winning three straight after consecutive losses to Ohio State and Iowa.
It was the sixth straight conference setback for the Wolverines (5-6, 1-6), whose miserable Big Ten season just keeps getting worse—and with a potential bowl bid slipping away, Ohio State awaits next Saturday.
“There’s no question we’ve got one more chance,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve asked the team to be extra focused. We’ve been focused all year, but this is the biggest game of the year. Our guys know that.”
Wisconsin’s 45 points were the most the Badgers have ever scored against Michigan.
After the Badgers blew a 19-point lead in a loss to Michigan last year, Badgers defensive end O’Brien Schofield said he wasn’t comfortable celebrating the win until the clock hit zero.
“I didn’t want to think about that,” Schofield said. “Because last year, I was like, ‘We are killing these guys, these guys are terrible.’ … That was bad. I had to eat my words.”
Tolzien was 16 of 24 for 240 yards with an interception despite spending much of the game under pressure from defensive end Brandon Graham, who had a pair of sacks and forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown to give the Wolverines a 17-14 lead just before halftime.
But this time, the second-half letdown that has become this Michigan team’s dubious trademark actually began just before halftime, when it allowed the Badgers to drive for a 1-yard touchdown by John Clay.
“We’ve got to stay focused on what we need to do,” Graham said. “Most of the games we were out of our gaps and let big plays happen. It’s been killing us.”
Nick Toon caught two of Tolzien’s touchdown throws for the Badgers, who went to the air early on after putting together monster rushing performances in their previous two games.
Leading 21-17, Wisconsin received the second-half kickoff and marched to the Michigan 15-yard line, where Tolzien threw toward Toon in the end zone. Toon, son of former Badgers and NFL receiver Al Toon, jumped and came down with his second TD of the day despite being interfered with on the play.
Tate Forcier was a solid 20 of 26 for 188 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, but it wasn’t enough. After a 4-0 start to the season, the Wolverines are reeling heading into their biggest rivalry.
“If I have to spend 10 hours this week watching film, I’m going to do that,” Forcier said. “We’re going to get the seniors to a bowl game. We’re going to come out and do what we need to do to beat Ohio State.”
Forcier kept Michigan in the game after Toon’s acrobatic touchdown catch, converting a fourth-and-9 play to set up a 10-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree that cut Wisconsin’s lead to 28-24 midway through the third.
But the Wolverines defense just couldn’t get the stop it needed.
With Wisconsin facing third-and-7 at the Michigan 19, linebacker Stevie Brown burst through the line and Tolzien got rid of the ball just before taking a crunching hit, delivering a 12-yard pass to tight end Garrett Graham to set up first-and-goal at the 7. Tolzien threw a touchdown to tight end Lance Kendricks two plays later, putting Wisconsin up 35-24.
The Badgers were coming off impressive rushing performances in victories over Purdue and Indiana but had a hard time finding yards on the ground against Michigan’s defense early on. Michigan held Wisconsin to 53 yards rushing in the first half but couldn’t keep it up, as John Clay got 109 of his 151 yards on the ground after halftime.
“Defensively, we are reaching to find an answer to stop people,” Rodriguez said.