Wisconsin won't fall into trap at Big House
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
It violates college football's time-honored code to suggest this, but Saturday's trip to Michigan could be a trap game for No. 9 Wisconsin.
Now before screaming sacrilege and summoning the ghosts of Yost, Crisler and Schembechler, consider the facts.
Michigan sits in last place in the Big Ten at 1-2. The massive turnover of both personnel and coaching philosophy has brought growing pains on both sides of the ball. Wisconsin's depth chart lists 17 juniors or seniors among the 22 starters on offense and defense. Michigan's depth chart lists 10 starters who are freshmen or sophomores, including those at quarterback (Steven Threet), running back (Sam McGuffie) and wide receiver (Martavious Odoms, Darryl Stonum).
And look at what's up next for Wisconsin. Next week, the Badgers host defending Big Ten champ Ohio State in a Saturday night game at Camp Randall Stadium, where Wisconsin has never lost under coach Bret Bielema. Then the Penn State Nittany Lions, considered by many to be a better team than Wisconsin despite facing weaker competition, visit Madison for another Saturday night affair.
Given those factors, the term "trap game" applies to Saturday's contest at Michigan Stadium (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET). Will the Badgers let things get that far? Don't bet on it.
Wisconsin has the benefit of history -- both recent and long term -- to consult before visiting the Wolverines. The Badgers haven't won in Ann Arbor since 1994, a span of four games. In 1998, they fell 27-10 but still went on to win the league title and reach the Rose Bowl.
"The Big House is 110,000 people, so we definitely want to go in there and try to do something different," senior cornerback Allen Langford said. "We definitely go in there trying to make some history."
The Badgers' last visit to Michigan hits home for Langford, as well as many of his teammates and Bielema, who was in just his fourth game as a head coach on Sept. 23, 2006. Wisconsin had capitalized on a favorable opening schedule and came in at 3-0. Michigan had just humiliated Notre Dame in South Bend and carried a No. 6 national ranking into the game.
A DeAndre Levy interception sparked Wisconsin to a 7-0 lead, but Michigan countered as star wideout Mario Manningham out-jumped Langford for a 24-yard touchdown. The teams went to halftime tied at 10-10.
But Michigan pulled away in the second half. Manningham beat Langford for another long touchdown and the Wolverines stifled P.J. Hill and the Badgers' offense. Langford, a Detroit native, recorded two interceptions in the game, but his homecoming was bittersweet.
"My confidence definitely was sky-high after that game," said Langford, who split time with Jack Ikegwuonu marking Manningham. "I knew I could go out there and compete with the best. We look back at that game and said we could have definitely won. I'm not really sure exactly why it fell apart. We just didn't finish. That's all I know.
"This time we want to go out there and make sure we can take care of business."
The magnitude of the 2006 loss resonated for Wisconsin at the end of the season. The Badgers finished 12-1 and missed a BCS bowl despite finishing seventh in the final standings.
For a program that lists a BCS appearance as its benchmark this season, it's not hard to keep the focus on Michigan.
"I did bring it up," Bielema said of the 2006 game. "It didn't matter if it was one loss or one of three losses. It was a loss and they all count against you. The way that year panned out, it was the difference between us and a BCS game. ... The part that we've tried to emphasize to our guys, the team that took the field that day, a lot of our players are out there again this coming year, but a lot are gone.
"Joe Thomas was out there, John Stocco, guys that made a difference in that year. But it's the 11 guys this Saturday that play every snap that are going to make a difference."
Wisconsin has 11 current players who either made a tackle or caught a pass in the Michigan game two years ago. But what about the players without a direct reference point?
They could fall victim to thinking ahead.
"From the outside world, you never know what our kids are hearing," Bielema said. "They've got girlfriends, they've got friends, they've got relatives that want to talk to them about different things."
One thing Bielema made sure to mention when players reconvened following the bye week was Wisconsin's recent road record. The Badgers went 1-3 in Big Ten road games last year.
They cleared a huge road hurdle Sept. 13 by beating Fresno State, but another awaits Saturday.
"The one thing that we've tried to have status quo into this season as we came forward is, 'How are we going to play on the road? How are we going to [make] the things that we prepare during the week carry over Saturday?'" Bielema said.
Hill, who was held to 54 rush yards on 20 carries two years ago at Michigan, comes off what Bielema called his best performance of the young season, a 112-yard effort at Fresno State. Michigan's veteran defensive line provides a decent test for Hill, who enters the game as the nation's ninth-leading rusher (126.3 ypg).
Tackling has been the focal point for the Badgers' defense after allowing several Fresno State ball-carriers to wriggle free two weeks ago. Though Michigan has yet to find its flow on offense, coach Rich Rodriguez's spread will put pressure on Wisconsin's defenders.
"They spread you out, create those 1-on-1s to make people have to play in space and make plays," Langford said. "In the back end, we have to be disciplined in everything we do."
Especially from a psychological standpoint.
"We're taking this game full speed ahead," Langford said. "We know what happened the last time we went down there."