The battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe and a date with Ohio State in next week's Big Ten Championship Game was an excellent Big Ten battle. Both teams flexed their muscle at times doing what they do best and daring the other team to stop them. Momentum swung, leads were changed and in the end Wisconsin proved to be the better team. They overcame a 17-3 deficit, scored 24 unanswered points and eventually pulled away from the Gophers to win 24-34.
There is no doubt that Wisconsin is a very good football team. The Gophers are also a good team, capable of winning this afternoon's game but getting a few things to fall their way would certainly help. Early on the script was certainly playing out in Minnesota's favor, about as good of a start as we could have hoped for. The Gophers opened the game in control and remained in control for about a quarter and a half before things turned and they could never fully recover.
Minnesota started the game with an unimpressive three-and-out, and lined up to punt. It was from this point on that they dominated the quarter. On the punt return Jack Lynn forced a fumble that was recovered by Eric Murray at the Badger 13. Two plays later Mitch Leidner rushed for 10 yards to the end zone and a 7-0 Gopher lead. Wisconsin attempted to answer with a 12-play drive, Melvin Gordon getting carries on seven of those 12 and they moved 69 yards but were denied inside the 5 and had to settle for a FG. The two teams exchanged possessions before Wisconsin's punter, from his own end zone, gave the Gophers great field position at the Badger 40.
David Cobb took those 40 yards on the very next play for the Gopher's second touchdown of the afternoon. The big run not only gave his team a 14-3 lead but it also was the one to break the Gopher's single season rushing record, passing Laurence Maroney.
Now trailing by 11, the Badgers responded with a three-and-out to end the quarter giving the ball back to the Gophers. The Gophers took the ball back, went 30 yards before a penalty on a converted third down force them to kick a Ryan Santoso field goal to take a two-touchdown lead. The team traded three-and-outs and then came the moment when the momentum shifted back to the Badgers.
The game-plan to attempt to limit Melvin Gordon and make Joel Stave beat you with his arm is a good plan...until Stave starts beating you with his arm. Trailing 17-3 the Badgers opened things up a bit. Stave made a great throw to Alex Erickson for 70 yards which set up a 4-yard pass to Gordon to get the Badgers back into the end zone. Stave finished with 215 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Minnesota marched 10 plays and 44 yards, getting into FG range right before half but a Cobb fumble gave the ball back to the Badgers. Joel Stave took to the air again hitting Erickson for 35 yards then finding Erickson again for 14 more and Rafael Gaglianone hit a FG as time expired to cut the Gopher lead to 17-13 at the half.
Halftime happened and the momentum continued to roll in the Badger's favor. With three possessions we accumulated less than 30 yards in the third quarter while Wisconsin moved the ball and took the lead Corey Clement 28-yard run. The quarter felt ugly but could have been much worse. The Badgers only managed to get one touchdown and held just a 3-point lead going into the 4th.
With their first possession of the 4th quarter, Wisconsin used a big run from Gordon and another big run from Clement to set up a Gordon touchdown and a two possession lead for the Badgers with about 11 minutes to play. Now down 10 points, things looked daunting for Minnesota.
They finally completed a pass to Maxx Williams who ran 53 yards, setting up a Gopher touchdown and a FG differential again. It was time for the Gopher defense to stop the Badger offense if they wanted a chance to win the Axe for the first time in a decade. But they went 75 yards in just 6 plays and it was a pass to Robert Wheelright to bump the lead back to 10. Yes, Robert Wheelright is the brother of former Gopher Ernie and yes, it was his first catch of the season.
The Gophers played well but struggled to stop Melvin Gordon in the second half after bottling him up in the first. He had just 55 yards in the first half and ended up with 151. And on offense we just struggled to move the ball in the second half, particularly through the air. In the end Wisconsin proved to be the stronger team. Their defense is very good, Joel Stave played well enough to make sure their offense was balanced and their play-makers made more plays.
This can be for Monday but there is no reason to hand our heads too long, Gopher fans. We were playing in the final week of the season for a spot in the conference championship game. We came up short but hats off to this team and there is still time to regroup and win a bowl game. Today we came up short to a good team.