Even though the last four trips to Minneapolis had been decided by an average margin of 4.3 points, this year border battle was an all-out massacre, as senior quarterback Russell Wilson completed his first 16 passes and threw for four touchdowns while junior Montee Ball set the school's single-season touchdown scoring record in a 42-13 blasting over Minnesota.
The victory for Wisconsin (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) gives the Badgers a record eighth straight win in the series over the Golden Gophers (2-8, 1-5), and more importantly back in control of their final destination.
Even before taking the field, it felt like it was going to be a good day for Wisconsin. Needing help to make it to the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, the Badgers got the help it needed with Penn State losing its first conference game at home to Nebraska and Purdue pulling the overtime upset at home against Ohio State.
Head coach Bret Bielema found out at halftime about the day's results, but didn't tell his players where they stood until after the game. That didn't stop someone telling senior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym before the game or senior lineman Kevin Zeitler reading the out of town Big Ten scores on the stadium's LED boards … not that it really matters.
"If we start to focus down the road, we're going to lose sight of what's in front of us," said senior safety Aaron Henry. "We're going to enjoy this victory tonight … We're back in the driver's seat and if we win out, we'll pretty much take care of business. It's all up to us."
After another bitter road pill in Columbus, leaving the Badgers winless on the road in the Big Ten, Wisconsin was no longer in control of its fate in the Leaders Division race to Indianapolis where they hoped to get a rematch with Michigan State. Two weeks later, the Badgers are rebuilding a monster.
"We're in the construction phase of getting back to where we want to be," Bielema said.
Even though the opponent wasn't up to snuff, Wisconsin has proved that its two-game losing streak is a memory, as it rolled up 461 yards of total offense, points on four of its first five possessions and saw its defense pitch a shutout and hold a squad that scored 31 points in East Lansing last week to just 156 total yards, the lowest total for an opponent this season.
The only points Minnesota could muster was a 5-yard scramble on a fake field goal and Duane Bennett returning the second half kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. Still, Wisconsin answered both with touchdowns, never letting Minnesota get within 15 points in the second half.
"We talk about a complete team being able to help each other out," Bielema said. "Obviously, there have been other times during the course of the year, even on the road, the way we responded in the fourth quarter a couple times in a losing effort. I really think this team emotionally plays really well together."
Wisconsin's recipe for success the last two seasons against Minnesota has been the trademark of the Badgers dating back to the days Barry Alvarez roamed the sideline.
In 2009, Wisconsin stayed unbeaten by rushing for 295 yards and three rushing touchdowns by John Clay, taking advantage of three Minnesota turnovers. Last season, Clay ran for 111 yards and three scores while James White had 118 yards and two touchdowns to extend the longest winning streak for Wisconsin.
This year was Montee Ball's turn to carve up. The junior running back ran into the Big Ten records books with his 23 carries for 166 yards and three total touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving), breaking the conference's single season touchdown record of 26.
Ball knew he was close on his historic drive that he broke character by asking the coaches if he would receive a delay of game penalty if he held on to the ball. After the referees gave the coaching staff the OK and he found the end zone, he made sure to thank each of his offensive linemen for clearing the road.
"It's something I really pride myself is working hard and I think that's what that record stands for, just finishing and working hard," said Ball, who has scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season and rushed for at least 100 yards in six games this year. "I gave them (the linemen) a hug and told them ‘thank you' for everything they've done."
Added senior guard Kevin Zeitler: "I figured he (set the record) when he kept the ball and ran off the field with it … He's had one heck of a year. There's no doubt about that."
Ball already knows where the record-breaking pigskin is going.
"I'm going to give it to my parents because I owe them everything," said Ball.
After setting career high in completions (19), yards (295) and touchdowns (3) last week against Michigan State, Wisconsin held junior quarterback MarQueis Gray to 51 passing yards and one interception. Throw in the fact that Gray, the team's leading rusher, was held to 68 yards, Minnesota's only had two drives that went longer than six plays and none that resulted in points.
"We just didn't play very well today," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "That starts up front all the way back to MarQueis."
Wisconsin's first two drives were polar opposites, but similar in that Ball capped both drives with a touchdown, breaking the school record for touchdowns in a season. It started methodical, a 14-play, 81-yard drive that chewed up the first 8 minutes, 8 seconds of the game before Ball caught a 2-yard touchdown pass. It continued quickly, after two long pass plays set up Ball juking the linebacker for an untouched 13-yard touchdown.
It basically ended after that, as Nick Toon punched in its third drive from nine yards out. Not only did Wisconsin have a 21-0 lead, the Badgers outgained the Gophers 189 to minus-1, taking full advantage of 14 plays that went for 10 yards or more in the first 30 minutes.
"We have an explosive offense, a lot of weapons on offense, and when we go out and execute, we're pretty hard to stop," Toon said. "As an offense, that's all we can do is go out, execute and take care of our job."
As it turns out, Toon was just getting started. Being held without a touchdown and less than three catches since week 5, Toon caught eight of nine targets Wilson threw his way, racked up 100 receiving yards and two scores, including a 17-yard pass with 51 seconds left when he faked out his defender, busting the one-on-one coverage.
It was Toon's first 100-plus yard receiving day since catching 155 yards worth against South Dakota.
"He's extremely talented," said Wilson of Toon, whose eight catches were a career high. "He's a big tall receiver that can run extremely well and has great hands. He has that pedigree where he wants the ball in his hands all the time and that's a great thing to have."
Now the fate of a second consecutive Rose Bowl appearance is back in the Badgers' hands. That's a great thing to have.
"To be back in the driver's seat," said Ball, "is a good thing."