ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It was crunch time at the Big House for the University of Wisconsin football team.
Michigan had just sliced UW's lead to 13 points, a little more than 6 minutes remained in the game and the Badgers had the ball. However, they desperately needed to run it so they could keep it away from Denard Robinson, Michigan's hard-to-corral quarterback.
As UW's offense prepared to take the field, there was a strange sight on the sideline. Defensive tackle Patrick Butrym walked up and gave guard John Moffit a hug. Then more defensive linemen followed suit, embracing their counterparts on the offensive line.
"That's not very common," offensive tackle Gabe Carimi said. "I think they just knew they were riding us. They knew we were running the ball every play and they were just saying, ‘Keep it going.' "
All the way to the Big Ten Conference title and perhaps even to the Rose Bowl.
Sixth-ranked UW hasn't accomplished either one of those objectives just yet, but it took a giant step toward both with its physically dominating 48-28 victory over Michigan on Saturday at always-frightful Michigan Stadium.
The victory over the Wolverines, the sixth straight for the Badgers since losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten opener, left them one home victory over Northwestern away from their first Big Ten title since 1999 and made a return to the Rose Bowl a far more realistic possibility, especially after come-from-behind victories by fellow Big Ten leaders Ohio State and Michigan State on Saturday.
More than anything, though, the convincing win over an improving, seven-win Michigan team showcased UW's two greatest assets — its togetherness and its offensive line — and broadcast a statement that no team is playing better football in the Big Ten right now than the Badgers. Wherever they end up in the postseason, assuming it is in a Bowl Championship Series game, they will deserve to be there.
"I know this, we're a very good football team," coach Bret Bielema said. "I'll put us with anybody. I know we have one loss, but I watch college football and we're a good football team that prepares weekly to do what we do. ... In the bigger picture, we're playing as well as anybody out there."
If we didn't know that after UW beat Ohio State and Iowa on back-to-back Saturdays in October, then we surely know it after the past two games. UW was unstoppable on offense in those games, rolling up 695 rushing yards, 1,156 total yards and 131 points against Indiana and Michigan. And UW did it all with reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay standing on the sideline with a knee injury.
That 10-point loss at Michigan State seemed a long way away Saturday, but the truth is it was on the Badgers' minds. In fact, it's been on their minds for the past six games.
In a roundabout way, that loss turned UW into the determined, together team it is today.
"Going into that game, I don't know if every kid in that (locker) room believed how special this team could be," Bielema said. "But there's no doubt leaving that locker room they knew they could be a good football team."
After a loss?
"When you're dealing with 18- to 22-year-old kids, you can say certain things and try to ingrain it in them, but until they first-hand see how special they can be, they don't realize it," Bielema said. "As we all get older, you learn you've got to take the good and the bad through life. They took the bad of that day and turned it to good and have been very, very positive moving forward. They have been challenged in every way possible."
And they've emerged looking every bit like a team worthy of the Big Ten title and a spot in the Rose Bowl. Indeed, with that powerful, relentless offensive line consistently opening holes for the best group of running backs in the nation, the Badgers have something they can ride against any opponent.
Saturday, UW coughed up a good chunk of its 24-0 halftime lead before Bielema turned the game over to his offensive line. UW ran the ball on its final 29 plays (not including two kneel downs) and turned the explosive Robinson into a spectator.
"I think it shows a lot of faith that our coaches have that no matter how many guys they put in the box that we'll still be able to execute our stuff," quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "I think all that starts with the offensive line."
Which is why it could all end in the Rose Bowl for UW.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.