At No. 4 on our list of the top games of the Jim Harbaugh era comes one of the most thrilling defensive performances the Wolverines have seen in his tenure. The year 2016 was one to remember for Michigan — it was its closest sniff at a College Football Playoff prior to the triumphant first appearance in 2021. The Wolverines were good and a lot of people knew it, but once they conquered the Badgers in the Big House early on, everyone knew they were a legit contender.
Season Significance: 10, Pre-Game Hype: 8
The Wisconsin Badgers are an elite program in the Big Ten Conference. They consistently hover around the 10-win mark, are tied for the most Big Ten Championship Game appearances in the conference (with Ohio State), and occasionally peek at a College Football Playoff appearance.
With that kind of success, the Badgers are a formidable opponent for anyone else in the conference, and that was certainly the case in 2016. They beat LSU in Week 1, a team considered one of the top five programs in the country. A week prior to the Michigan matchup, they earned their second victory over a top-10 opponent in the first four weeks of the season — a 30-6 blowout win over a Michigan State squad that was in the College Football Playoff a year earlier. After starting the year unranked, they marched up to No. 8 in the polls.
Michigan cruised through its first four weeks of the season, but had the hype from the start. Through the first four weeks, it outscored opponents 208-55, including blowout wins against Colorado and the Penn State Nittany Lions, the eventual Big Ten Champions.
Like so many other games on this list, this one was a tight game from the start, which adds just that extra something. A top-10 showdown between two of the premier teams in the conference, both with Big Ten Championship mindsets who had accolades coming for their defense. An old-school, low-scoring, pound the rock game was afoot, and both teams were damn good at it.
With Harbaugh’s poor record against quality opponents being a glaring weakness, this game would be pivotal to reshaping those thoughts in the national media. This game had maybe more hype than any non-Michigan State, Ohio State regular-season game since Harbaugh took over.
Highlight Play Score: 9, Individual Performance: 8
This one was a barn burner, just as everyone anticipated. Alex Hornibrook struggled to move the sticks with his arm, so the Badgers had to rely on their rushing attack with Dare Ogunbowale being the focal point.
It was a field position battle early, as Wisconsin punted inside the Michigan 15 for the Wolverines' first possession of the game. Wilton Speight connected with Jake Butt for 23 yards on the drive, but the offense stalled at midfield. Harbaugh elected to go with the punting unit on 4th and 3, a position where he often liked to go for it.
This pinned the Badgers inside their own 10-yard line, and Michigan’s defense went to work. Consecutive 1-yard runs forced the ball back into Hornibrook’s hands who couldn’t do enough to pick up a first.
Michigan took over again at its own 23-yard line after a solid punt. The Wisconsin defense had some studs on it, including future NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt. But they showed their first weakness of this game allowing a 77-yard drive on 11 plays. Speight converted on 3-of-5 attempts, forcing the Badgers to respect his arm. That allowed for some big running lanes, like this one for Chris Evans:
Later in this drive came the straight line choo-choo train formation that has become a bit of a meme across Michigan Twitter. The shenanigans by Harbaugh paid off as Michigan moved the pile into the 5-yard line:
It was apparent early in this one the Michigan heavyweights were outpunching their opponents. One play later, Khalid Hill smashed the ball into the end zone to put the Wolverines up 7-0.
A three-and-out on the next Wisconsin drive put the ball back in Michigan’s hands around midfield. Several successful runs moved the ball down inside the red zone. But once they got into that territory, they threw it twice, both falling incomplete. Kenny Allen lined up for a chip shot 31-yard field goal but shanked it. The Wolverines kept a 7-0 advantage.
Luckily, the Michigan defense picked him up. After stuffing a run on 2nd & 10, it was an obvious passing down and Don Brown sent the cavalry. Taco Charlton and Ryan Glasgow got home quickly for a sack and Wisconsin was punting from deep in its own territory again.
After a poor punt, Michigan took over at the 39-yard line, looking for a score. The Wolverines picked up a first down but didn’t get very far. After just missing a field goal a moment earlier, Allen trotted out and did the exact same thing again. This time it was a 43-yarder he missed.
Wisconsin took over and suddenly got some momentum. Hornibrook found Robert Wheelwright for 20-yards and was approaching plus territory. But on 3rd & 10, Hornibrook fumbled a snap, recovered it, but lost 13 yards. The Badgers were forced to punt again.
After trading punts, there were just moments left in the first half, but Paul Chryst elected to still go for a score with about two minutes left. That led to the game being in Hornibrook’s decision-making, and, well...
Had Channing Stribling broken free, he may have taken it back for six. Instead, the Wolverines went gunning for another score, but passes fell incomplete and we went into the half up 7-0.
To open up the second half, it was more of the same for the Michigan offense. Speight and the Wolverines could pick up yardage in short distances, but could never break free. When they finally tried, Speight was intercepted and Derrick Tindal returned it for 46 yards. Momentum had fully shifted.
The Badgers took advantage as Hornibrook found his groove converting on two passes on the drive. The second came in for a touchdown as Ogunbowale caught one and ran for 17-yards. The game was now tied.
Michigan’s leading rusher De’Veon Smith started to take over. He picked up 29 yards on two different rushes. Plus, a defensive holding penalty added on some extra yards. Then, Ty Isaac picked up 28 yards on the next four runs.
The Wolverines were back inside the red zone, where they were stifled after Speight was sacked on 3rd & 6. Michigan switched kickers as Ryan Tice was now given an opportunity at a 40-yard field goal. New kicker, same result. Michigan kickers had missed three consecutive kicks and the Wolverines left nine points off the board.
Wisconsin went three-and-out on its next possession. Then, Michigan lost 16 yards on three plays and punted. Corey Clement ran for 16 yards on the first carry of the next Badgers’ drive, but that was the only offense on that drive. Another punt.
Speight was off-target on the next drive and Michigan punted from deep in its own territory. Then, Wisconsin took over, but Chris Wormley said nay-nay on 3rd & 8 picking up the Wolverines’ second sack of the game:
Finally, some offense! Speight completed three consecutive passes and found Amara Darboh streaking down the field for a 43-yard score. In a game with so little ball movement offensively, the Wolverines had the big play that broke this one open and they regained the lead 14-7.
The top defense in the country was not going to let that lead go. Wisconsin picked up a grand total of 23 yards in the fourth quarter of a massive game. A huge reason for that was because of some pretty big interceptions.
The first fourth quarter pick came from the hands of Stribling, his second of the game:
Michigan’s offense was nowhere to be found in the closeout as well. Even after that interception with less than four minutes to go, Wisconsin got another opportunity to tie it.
On 4th & 10, Hornibrook was looking deep to the left. A reception could have been devastating as there was little help over the top. Instead, one of the greatest interceptions my eyes have ever seen put an exclamation mark on a grueling victory:
Hornibrook was 9-of-25 on the game for only 88 yards and three interceptions. Overall, the Badgers had only 159 yards and eight first downs. It was one of the best defensive performances of the Harbaugh era and Michigan needed every ounce of it to beat a good Badgers squad.
Historical Significance: 7
Any time a top-10 battle in the Big Ten ends in dramatic fashion, it’s going to be an instant classic. That one-handed interception by Jourdan Lewis will go down in the lore of this game. If something like that would have happened against Michigan State or Ohio State, it would be remembered forever.
The fact it was against Wisconsin dampens it a little. However, the win put Michigan in the conversation as a legitimate contender. Had it not been for the loss at Iowa, and if JT was marked short against Ohio State like he should have been, Michigan would have been in the Big Ten Championship and maybe marched to the College Football Playoff. Instead, it will be remembered as the best win in a phenomenal season that had a lot of memories.
This one was a lot of fun. There was so much chaos on the offensive end for both sides as two of the premier defenses in the Big Ten faced off and succeeded. But in the Big Ten, these tend to be the games that are remembered because it brings that vintage feel in the modern era where offenses are scoring at will.
While neither of these team's seasons ended in the promised land, they both wound up having solid years. That might all have been forgotten if the late-game heroics from Lewis had never occurred. Michigan was undefeated for another week and Harbaugh finally earned a win over a thriving top-10 opponent.
Check out the other games in this series released every Sunday: