The unranked Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4) defeated the 14th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers (8-4) 23-13 in Minnesota on Saturday.
Winning this year’s edition of college football’s oldest rivalry, Minnesota reclaimed Paul Bunyan’s Axe and denied Wisconsin a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game next Saturday against Michigan.
Minnesota received the opening kickoff, and on the first play from scrimmage, Wisconsin safety Collin Wilder was ejected for targeting. Wilder led with his shoulder, not his head, but he made firm enough contact with wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell’s helmet to draw the controversial call. The Gophers went 65 yards on 14 plays but settled for a field goal on their first drive.
The Badgers responded with a field goal, tying the game 3-3 after a 15-play, 85-yard drive that ate nearly 10 minutes of the clock and extended into the second quarter. A questionable personal foul penalty had extended the possession after Wisconsin failed to convert a 3rd-and-5.
Wisconsin then went up 10-3 on a pick-six by safety Scott Nelson, who had an open lane to the end zone after a Noah Burks-deflected pass landed in his arms.
Another Minnesota field goal — then a series of punts — had Wisconsin leading 10-6 at halftime.
The second half began with a Graham Mertz interception. The Wisconsin quarterback threw a jump ball to receiver Kendrick Pryor, who was (barely) outmuscled by cornerback Justin Walley. Mertz made a decent throw, but the 5’11” Pryor doesn’t excel at that type of leaping, contested catch.
Minnesota needed only two plays to march 28 yards and take a 13-10 lead on Ky Thomas’ touchdown run.
The Badgers followed with another long drive, this one 11 plays and 66 yards, that stalled in the red zone and resulted in a game-tying field goal.
Thomas and quarterback Tanner Morgan led the Gophers down the field again, with help from a pass interference call on cornerback Caesar Williams. Autman-Bell hauled in a 27-yard touchdown to give Minnesota a 20-13 lead. A collision between two Badger defensive backs left Autman-Bell crossing the field against single coverage, and Morgan took full advantage.
Wisconsin reached Minnesota’s 30-yard line on the ensuing possession but ultimately settled for a field goal attempt. Kicker Collin Larsh came up just short, hitting the crossbar on the 48-yard attempt. While 48 yards is near the edge of his range, the Badgers were in a position where neither punting nor going for it made much sense.
The Badger defense needed a stop but couldn’t make one. Minnesota added a field goal to make it 23-13 while running the clock down to 6:08.
On 4th and 1 at their own 21-yard line, Wisconsin shockingly lined up to punt, but a false start pushed them back five yards. Then they elected to go for it and converted with a strike to tight end Jake Ferguson.
Paul Chryst said the punt unit was sent on the field by mistake, according to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The sequence didn’t affect the outcome of the game. Even so, it suggested a general confusion or lack of focus on Wisconsin’s sideline that’s unacceptable in a must-win game.
Mertz failed to convert the next fourth down, though, and with just over three minutes remaining, the game was essentially over.
It had been clear for weeks that Wisconsin’s offense lived through running back Braelon Allen, who strung together seven consecutive 100-plus yard games entering Saturday. But, against Minnesota, the 17-year-old had by far his worst game since becoming the lead back, averaging just 2.8 yards on his 17 carries for 47 rushing yards.
The Gophers entered the game with the Big Ten’s third-ranked rush defense and performed admirably against Allen, swarming him at the line of scrimmage and limiting the yards after contact he had accumulated so impressively this season.
Late deficits had become foreign to Wisconsin during the seven-game winning streak, and as the Fox broadcasters alluded to, the Badger offense isn’t built for desperate, pass-heavy drives. Mertz, who made some nice throws earlier in the game, was mostly ineffective in the second half and finished 21-for-38 with 171 yards and the interception.
Having played competently yet unremarkably as Braelon Allen’s side-gig for a couple of months, Mertz wasn’t prepared to lead a late-game comeback with so much on the line. Unfortunately, playing worse as games progress has plagued the sophomore on several occasions and did so once again Saturday.
Jim Leonhard’s defense played well, as it held Morgan to 199 yards and Minnesota’s rushing attack to 2.4 yards per carry. Though it struggled to get off the field at times, the unit kept the game within reach for the Badgers.
Wisconsin’s pass rush recorded three sacks but failed to establish a consistent presence in Morgan’s pocket. The senior quarterback often had too much time to read the Badger secondary, which had been the weaker part of the defense all season and was fielding a hobbled cornerback in Faion Hicks.
Issues guarding tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford (3 catches, 62 yards) may be partially attributable to the loss of the versatile Wilder. That said, the 6’7” junior was Minnesota’s leading receiver and — with a big downfield gain — started the drive that gave the Gophers a 23-13 lead.
The Badgers will still play in a respectable bowl game this season (one not sponsored by mayonnaise, likely), but Saturday’s loss in Minnesota was a massive blown opportunity.
Awaiting Wisconsin was a Michigan Wolverines team that the Badgers competed with for a couple of quarters in a time before Braelon Allen’s emergence. Although Wisconsin lost that matchup 38-17, the Badgers in their current form absolutely could’ve competed with Michigan.
The Wolverines employ a run-heavy offense and would have posed less of a threat to Wisconsin’s defense than Ohio State (whom Michigan beat Saturday), which has a potent downfield passing game the Badgers would’ve struggled to contain.
Wisconsin had controlled its destiny for the Big Ten West title for several weeks, and it came so close to completing its journey back from a 1-3 start. The Golden Gophers had the opportunity to play spoiler, and they did just that, so Iowa will be the division’s representative in next week’s Big Ten Championship Game.
The Badgers will have to wait until the final College Football Playoff Top 25 Ranking Show on Sunday, Dec. 5 to learn what bowl they’ll play in, but most recent projections have the Badgers likely ending up playing in the Outback Bowl against a mid-tier SEC school on Jan. 1, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.