This year’s Michigan and Wisconsin game is unique, which is not unorthodox. These two teams have played four times in the last five years. Since 2016, they have played when both teams were ranked in the top 10 (the amazing battle of 2016), when Michigan was struggling and Wisconsin was on a war path to the Big Ten Championship game (2017), when Michigan was on the revenge tour and Wisconsin was struggling (2018), and when both were good but not great (2019). This year is different in that it seems like the identities of both teams are up in the air.
Wisconsin has a highly-recruiter quarterback who chose the Badgers over many top rated programs, but he has struggled and so too has the team. Meanwhile, Michigan is running the ball as much as possible (74% of all play calls) and yet hit a brick wall against…Rutgers. This year’s matchup is the first time that neither team can unequivocally state they know their identities for this year, and years to come.
I am writing about this because although I am from Michigan, I have lived in Wisconsin since 2013 when I moved here for law school (Marquette, not UW). I can remember studying in an empty classroom with friends who intentionally turned on the Michigan game so I could watch them lose to Maryland in 2015. I can remember being mocked for Harbaugh’s hire. And I can remember dressing up as Harbaugh for a Halloween party in 2015 only to sit in the corner leaning forward like the coach as Michigan stopped Minnesota at the goal line.
I have been a lone wolf in a Badger den for eight years. When I lived in Michigan, I had no issues with Wisconsin. They were the friendly Badgers. Since living here, I can tell you they are not as friendly as they seem. They’ve been confident, a little arrogant, and most importantly, a damn good football team.
Wisconsin fans walk with a chip on their shoulder, argue that the West is not only good, but better than the East, and think they are going to the playoff every year until they meet Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game.
They hate Michigan. I have no idea why. My wife, an avid Badger fan, hated Michigan when I met her. She hates them more now. The Wisconsin/Minnesota game is a rivalry game, yet Wisconsin fans seem to care more about the Michigan game. Wisconsin, which is undoubtedly an amazing place to live, is pretty unbearable on Saturdays during the fall (and Sundays for that matter). The fans here live and die by football.
But this year has been different. Wisconsin fans have no confidence, they have started to turn on Mertz and have started to turn on head coach Paul Chryst. They are 1-2. They could still win the West (although Iowa has a thing or two to say about that), they could still go to the Rose Bowl and they could still have a long shot of going to the playoff (albeit a very small chance).
Yet, at 1-2, the fans are done. They are searching for an identity as much as the team is. And to the fans, the team is running out of time. This year’s game doesn’t seem like a contest of titans battling for supremacy — it seems like a fan base reeling for from being punched in the mouth, and another just trying to avoid being punch again.
This year’s game is like all others, its unique. And Wisconsin fans are frustrated.