Two dominant, season-opening victories against overmatched opponents were in the past and 11th-ranked Michigan was in the immediate future when University of Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr was asked if he, like many across the nation, wondered how good the 13th-ranked UW football team was.
“I don’t wonder how good we are, I know how good we are," Orr said Monday. "I’m moreso eager to show everybody else how good we are. Ever since my time here, nobody really I guess believes in what we do. They downplay the big wins and they up-play the losses. I’m moreso eager to show the whole nation what we can do, how good we truly are so we can finally get some type of respect."
Consider the nation showed. Consider the respect earned.
OK, maybe not that last part, because respect always comes grudgingly for UW. But the Badgers made a powerful statement Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, dominating a talented Michigan team from the start before easing off the gas late in a thoroughly impressive 35-14 victory.
Seldom has a 3-0 record looked so good at UW. Late in the third quarter, the Badgers held a 35-0 lead over the Wolverines and had outscored their three opponents 145-0. But drubbing South Florida and Central Michigan don't ring the bell nationally, drubbing Michigan does. At least it should.
"Going into this game, no one wanted to tell us we were the best defense in the nation, no one wanted to tell us we have the best O-line, the best running back in the nation," linebacker Zack Baun said. "And I loved that quote by Chris. I think this was the statement that we do have the best team in the nation."
Maybe not the best, but at this point UW can comfortably replace Michigan as one of the teams that has a chance to reach the College Football Playoff. Sure, there's a long, difficult Big Ten schedule ahead, but the Badgers showed Saturday how good they have become in the wake of a disappointing 8-5 season.
Indeed, the enormous strides they've made since last season were evident. Michigan lost several defensive stars to the NFL but otherwise was the same team that routed UW 38-13 last year.
This time, Jonathan Taylor became the first UW back to rush for 200 yards against Michigan, rolling for 203 on 23 carries despite missing the second quarter with leg cramps. This time, quarterback Jack Coan and his receivers gave UW the passing attack it needed to keep Michigan's defense honest. This time, UW crushed the life out of Michigan's running attack, limiting it to 40 yards on 19 carries. This time, UW's secondary spotted Michigan one big play — a 68-yard catch and run by Ronnie Bell on the very first snap — and then clamped down on the Wolverines' NFL-bound wide receivers until the outcome was decided.
"I think we made a good statement," said cornerback Faion Hicks, who ran down Bell at the 7 to keep Michigan out of the end zone. "I think we made a statement that this is one of the best teams in the country. I think we made a statement as far as being the best defense and being a really good team. That was a really good team that we beat. I just hope the whole nation understands that this is a really good football team."
Good luck with that. Much of the national discussion this week will center on how much Michigan has underachieved in coach Jim Harbaugh's five seasons there. But the lasting impression from Saturday's game is that UW was a better coached, more talented team than Michigan.
Under Harbaugh, Michigan recruits off the same rack as Ohio State, but the Badgers gave up nothing to the Wolverines in terms of speed, skill, physicality and depth. UW manhandled Michigan between the tackles and more than matched its athleticism on the perimeter. UW gave up two late touchdown passes, but that 35-0 score had to cause some ripples across the nation.
"We were playing our football and if we do, that's what's going to happen," offensive tackle Cole Van Lanen said. "You can't predict that, but it's awesome to do it. Our defense shut out two teams in a row and I wasn't shocked that they were doing it again. We had some misfortunes on defense later on (in the game), but I'm excited. I'm excited for this whole team — offense, defense — and how we just play together."
It was hard not to be excited Saturday.
Josh Gattis, Michigan's new offensive coordinator, brought his "speed in space" approach to Madison and, while there was speed out there, there wasn't much space thanks to a UW defense that plays faster than it did last year. The most telling statistic? Michigan was 0-for-10 on third-down conversions.
On offense, UW set the tone early, bullying Michigan with runs by Taylor and going for it when facing fourth downs against a defense that dominated it last season. The most impressive part was that UW didn't change its approach one bit when Taylor left the game.
"There's always talk that (people) don't give us enough credit," Van Lanen said. "I don't care. It just shows what kind of team we are and we're going to keep doing this every week and we're going to to try and build off every week. We don't really look at anything outside of our team. Our goal every week is just to kick the butt of anyone in front of us and prepare as hard as we can. It showed today."
Saturday, the Badgers showed that they are for real.