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Friday, May 27, 2022
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Football: Wisconsin holds on to Paul Bunyan's Axe for ninth straight year

The Wisconsin Badgers (3-1 Big Ten, 6-2 overall) run game catapulted the team to victory yet again, but this time the team has Paul Bunyan’s Axe to show for it for the ninth straight season.

Playing for the 122nd time—the longest-running rivalry in the Football Bowl Subdivision—the Badgers received two rushing performances of over 165 yards in the team’s 38-13 victory over Minnesota (0-3, 4-3).

Junior running back James White (175 rushing yards, three touchdowns) and senior running back Montee Ball (166 rushing yards, two touchdowns) ran wild during the game in which the Badgers’ ground attack more than tripled the yardage that came through the air.

“When [James] starts playing really, really well, it kind of sets a fire into me,” Ball said. “I told him I better get going, and vice-versa, which is the healthy competition that we have. It betters the offense.”

The Badgers got on the board about five minutes in when White ran one in from 14 yards out. The Gophers responded just six plays and a little over three minutes later but failed the extra point attempt. Wisconsin would then go on a 17-0 run until late in the third quarter, thanks to a well-prepared defense that matched up against a true freshman quarterback in Philip Nelson.

“We knew they were trying to do a lot of quick-game [plays] just because there was a new quarterback in his first game, so we were just trying to get quick passes out,” fifth-year senior corner Devin Smith said.

“We didn’t think they were going to take many shots down the field, especially with a inexperienced quarterback in his first start.”

Nelson finished 13-of-24 for 149 yards, with two touchdowns and two interceptions and while going three-and-out on seven of 11 possessions.

Smith intercepted his second pass of the season early in the second half and redshirt junior linebacker Ethan Armstrong did the same on the first play of Minnesota’s drive after the Badgers had pulled ahead 31-13 early in the fourth.

“[Armstrong’s interception] was a sideline adjustment that they saw from the field,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. Chris [Ash] and [linebackers] coach [Andy] Buh got it together and it was effective and it changed the game.”

The Badgers also experimented with what they call the “Barge” formation—a wildcat-type formation that includes seven or eight offensive linemen and White at quarterback—multiple times throughout the game.

“When you haven’t seen it on film or anything like that and they put five guys on one side and three on the other, that’s a good move on their part,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said.

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White’s 14-yard score in the first quarter resulted from this formation and the team ran it three more times, once in the first quarter one play prior to White’s first score and twice early in the fourth quarter. White had 31 yards from the formation and averaged 11.7 yards per rush overall.

How does Bielema explain the lineup?

“[A] very big piece of people moving downfield together,” he said smiling, while also noting that they had planned on using it in the past three weeks or so, but injuries stalled its inclusion in actual games.

Redshirt junior center Travis Frederick sees the formation as one that shows reverence to the line.

“For us to have a chance with seven offensive linemen, that’s really putting it on your back,” he said. “It’s an honor for us to have that package in there.”

Redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave finished 7-of-15 for 106 yards, with over half of those yards coming from junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis’ two catches for 68 yards.

He received plenty of protection from the line even with fifth-year senior left tackle Rick Wagner out, with the exception being late in the second half when he was sacked twice in three plays that knocked the team out of field goal position.

The win extends the streak of the winning team in the rivalry scoring at least 31 points to 13 games. The Gophers also gave up points in the second half for the first time in three games.

Fifth-year senior linebacker Mike Taylor continued his dominance in the tackles column, as the Ashwaubenon, Wis., native recorded 12 in the game.

Not only does the win keep the Axe in Wisconsin for another year, but it also sets up a matchup against a burgeoning rival in Michigan State—this time at home in Madison.

“It’ll be nice to see them in Camp Randall,” Borland said, smiling.

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