Penalties, errant passes and a goal-line opportunity gone awry are hardly the recipes for picture-perfect football. That said, the bizarre ending to Saturday’s game versus Minnesota was a perfectly fitting conclusion to the 2022 Badgers’ regular season.
With a 23-16 victory over Wisconsin (6-6, 4-5), the Golden Gophers (8-4, 5-4) came to Madison and defended their claim to Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Failures in the red zone, lapses in pass coverage and horribly timed penalties spelled doom for the Badgers in their quest to reclaim the Axe and, more importantly, finish the season with a winning record.
Minnesota answered Wisconsin’s game-opening field goal with a 10-play, 81-yard touchdown drive. Receiver Daniel Jackson got separation from cornerback Jay Shaw on a quick slant and hauled in an easy, six-yard pass from Athan Kaliakmanis.
The Gophers were quickly back in the red zone thanks to Kaliakmanis’ beautiful deep ball. Shaw was burnt again, this time by Dylan Wright. A failed fourth-down run ended the threat at Wisconsin’s 11-yard line, though.
A field goal for each team made it 10-6 before halftime. Minnesota outgained the Badgers 220 yards to 133 in the half and Wisconsin, playing without the injured Braelon Allen, was averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.
Matthew Trickett added three for the Gophers with an impressive 50-yard field goal to start the third quarter.
The Badgers once again hit a wall in Minnesota territory, stalling at the 18 and settling for a third Nate Van Zelst field goal.
A 28-yard catch-and-run by fullback Jackson Acker quickly got Wisconsin back in the red zone following a Gopher three-and-out. This time, the Badgers found the end zone, with Chimere Dike scoring on a nine-yard reverse and giving Wisconsin a 16-13 lead. Graham Mertz made a crucial block, eliminating the free edge defender and clearing a lane for Dike.
Minnesota tied it with a chip-shot field goal midway through the fourth quarter. Jackson made a terrific 34-yard sideline catch to get them within range. Semar Melvin appeared to be all over the receiver, but nifty footwork and a perfect throw from Kaliakmanis beat the jumping cornerback.
Wisconsin’s third consecutive three-and-out gave Minnesota the ball with 6:21 remaining. Near midfield after a couple first downs, Kaliakmanis hit receiver Lemeke Brockington for a 45-yard touchdown. Brockington slipped behind cornerback Alexander Smith, caught the quick pass and easily outran Melvin and John Torchio for the go-ahead score.
On third down with under three minutes to go, Mertz badly overthrew Dike and handed it back to the Gophers. The interception didn’t end the game, however, as Trickett clanged a 48-yarder off the right upright.
With Mertz hurt on a two-yard scramble, backup quarterback Chase Wolf entered for his first meaningful action all year. The task: gaining 59 yards in about a minute to tie the game and force overtime.
A 14-yard run by Isaac Guerendo on fourth down, a 16-yard completion to Dike on the left sideline and a defensive pass interference call set Wisconsin up with a first-and-goal from the five.
On the verge of an unprecedented comeback, the Badger offensive line just couldn’t stand still. Riley Mahlman’s holding penalty pushed Wisconsin to the 15. A Tanor Bortolini false start and an incompletion made it second-and-20. Tyler Beach flinched, moving things back to the 25. Mahlman inexplicably did the same, leaving Wolf with three chances from the 30-yard line.
Neither of Wolf’s heaves to the end zone had any chance, and Wisconsin’s regular season ended with the Gophers celebrating at Camp Randall Stadium.
Another week, another issue
Wisconsin was clearly intent on slowing down running back Mohamed Ibrahim. They succeeded at that, limiting one of the nation’s best backs to 70 yards on 27 carries. As a team, the Gophers managed just 2.6 yards per carry and 97 total rushing yards.
Linebacker Maema Njongmeta was a force on the inside, totaling 12 tackles (nine solo) with 2.5 tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and half a sack. Keeanu Benton had a pair of backfield tackles and half a sack, too.
Kaliakmanis, a freshman with limited experience and underwhelming numbers, exposed the Badger secondary as much as any quarterback this season. He completed 19 of 29 attempts for 319 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Wisconsin appeared to have solved its early-season pass coverage woes, but Kaliakmanis and his receivers dominated on the outside. If Saturday was a sign of things to come, the Gophers should enjoy strong quarterback play for the next few years.
Braelon Allen’s absence, while noticeable, wasn’t crippling for the Badgers. Wisconsin had 82 rushing yards to Minnesota’s zero in the second half. Chez Mellusi ran for 75 yards on 19 carries and Guerendo had 40 yards.
The offensive shortcomings are mostly attributable to Mertz’s poor performance. He took no sacks and was hit only once, but Mertz struggled to deliver accurate throws all afternoon. He missed an open Jack Eschenbach at the goal line in the third quarter, forcing Wisconsin to settle for a field goal. The fourth-quarter interception was ugly as well.
All season, the Badgers have teased the idea of success only to collapse with costly mistakes, personnel uncertainty and an untrustworthy passing offense. Saturday’s final drive — with a new quarterback in the game, four consecutive penalties and the goal-line implosion — was just more of the same for Wisconsin.
What’s next? The first and most crucial step is hiring a head coach. It’s looking as if Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell will be hired, although the university has yet to issue a formal announcement.
The Daily Cardinal will have full coverage of the head coaching decision when a decision is made. We’ll also provide coverage of Wisconsin’s bowl game and other stories as the program begins preparing for 2023.