Paul Chryst was in his penultimate season as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator in 2010 when the Badgers traveled to Iowa in October for a critical Big Ten game.
Tenth-ranked Wisconsin entered the day without wide receiver Nick Toon and defensive tackle Jordan Kohout. Center Peter Konz, playing on a tender ankle injured the previous week, made it through the first half before bowing out. Wisconsin also lost tight end Lance Kendricks and reserve tailback James White in the opening half.
That unflinching bunch rallied for 21 second-half points to defeat the 13th-ranked Hawkeyes, 31-30, en route to a share of the Big Ten title.
Chryst, in his second season as Wisconsin’s head coach, faces a more forbidding challenge Saturday.
When the eighth-ranked Badgers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) face No. 4 Michigan (4-0, 1-0) at 2:30 p.m. at Michigan Stadium, they will do so without four key players.
Senior Vince Biegel, the team’s most experienced linebacker, is out indefinitely with a foot injury. Sophomore inside linebacker Chris Orr (knee) and kicker Rafael Gaglianone (back) are out for the season. Nickel cornerback Natrell Jamerson (fibula) is out for the third consecutive game.
Michigan, which averages 52.0 points per game and has outscored its foes by a combined 208-55 is an 11-point favorite.
“It doesn’t matter,” redshirt junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt said early in the week of being underdogs. “Put us against the wall and we’ll fight. We’ll fight until the end.”
Can the Badgers overcome the injuries to push Michigan, which has led at halftime by an average of 23.3 points, into the fourth quarter?
To do that, the Badgers will need a determined effort from a defense that keeps losing playmakers, an efficient performance from an offense that leads the Big Ten in time of possession at 37 minutes 1 second per game and a mistake-free performance from the special teams.
Justin Wilcox and the defensive assistants haven’t invented a new formula to slow opponents.
Wisconsin has been able to stop the run, limiting opponents to an average of 80.5 rushing yards per game, the top mark in the Big Ten and No. 10 mark nationally.
The work of the down linemen — tackle Olive Sagapolu and ends Conor Sheehy, Chikwe Obasih and Alec James — has been critical in occupying double-team blocks to free the linebackers to make plays.
“Our guys have had a lot of ‘knock-backs’ at the line of scrimmage,” redshirt sophomore linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “That is all we can really ask of them. If they do that, they make our job a whole lot easier.”
With opposing teams in disadvantageous third-down situations, UW has been able to pressure quarterbacks. Led by Watt (4½ sacks four quarterback hurries), UW has 11 sacks and 10 hurries. Six other players have at least one-half sack. A secondary that features three new starters has been solid against the run and pass.
As a result, opponents have converted just 23.9% of their third-down chances (11 of 46). Only Michigan (12%) has a better mark among Big Ten schools.
“When we’re playing good defense it is because every guy is doing their 1/11th,” Chryst said. “They are doing their job and they’re trusting that others are going to do theirs.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook excelled in his starting debut last week at Michigan State. He is as tenacious in the video room as he is poised on the field, but Michigan’s defense has the scheme and personnel to humble even the most focused quarterbacks.
“I think that is a big thing for a quarterback especially,” Hornibrook said of his video study. “That is the place you make your (biggest) improvements, besides on the field. You’ve got to put a lot of importance into that. I love going out and practicing every day. Nothing is boring. It’s never a drag for me. I just like going out and playing.”
During that trip to Iowa City in 2010, reserves such as offensive lineman Bill Nagy, tailback Montee Ball, tight end Jacob Pedersen and defensive tackle Ethan Hemer stepped in for injured teammates and helped the Badgers prevail.
The victory wasn’t secured until linebacker Mike Taylor, playing with braces on both knees, tackled Iowa tailback Adam Robinson in bounds at the UW 35, which allowed time to expire.
Wisconsin will need a similar effort Saturday against a Michigan team that is almost completely healthy, an effort similar to the one the Badgers gave in a 30-6 victory at then-No. 8 Michigan State.
“I’m proud of what this group did,” Chryst said after the victory over the Spartans. “I thought they played. It certainly wasn’t a perfect game, but our guys kept competing and did it together.”
UW will have to follow that same plan against Michigan.
My prediction of the game: Wisconsin 24, Michigan 21.