MADISON - Corey Clement didn’t think he was going to play. Rob Wheelwright was in a reserve role behind a wide receiver having a career day. To have a chance to win a Big Ten Championship, Wisconsin needed everybody – including a couple seldom-used players – to win the West.
In the biggest game of the season, No.14 Wisconsin relied on two underclassmen to propel the offense, as sophomores Clement and Wheelwright played critical scoring roles to help the Badgers earn a come-from-behind 34-24 victory over No.22 Minnesota Saturday.
“Big games like that, guys have to step up,” said receiver Alex Erickson, who stepped up himself with a career-high 160 yards on five catches. “Robert was in there and made a great catch. That’s great to see … Corey was a nice change to pace. Everybody has been seeing Melvin (Gordon) 25, 30 carries a game; Corey comes in with some fresh legs and does some damage.”
Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) broke a two-game losing streak on senior day, won Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 11th straight season and kept the Big Ten West Division title all to themselves.
All those accomplishments mean UW will face No.7 Ohio State (11-1, 8-0) next Saturday in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. Looking to avenge a 31-24 loss in Columbus last season, UW will face the Buckeyes without star quarterback J.T. Barrett, who suffered a fractured right ankle in the Buckeyes’ 42-28 home win over Michigan.
“It’s the biggest Axe game that has been around here in a long time; it’s definitely a great feeling,” said linebacker Joe Schobert. “Everybody is on a high right now. It’s one of things you’ll be able to tell your kids and grandkids years from now.”
The stories around the fire place or rocking chair down the road will vary from player to player, but all will likely involved the timely efforts from Clement and Wheelwright.
Clement had been limited in practice for two straight weeks after suffering a deep bruise to his AC joint in his right shoulder on his touchdown run against Nebraska two weeks ago. Having only 14 combined carry the last three games, he was told he was only going to play unless he was absolutely needed.
Wheelwright hadn’t made a catch all season and had just two career catches for nine yards. None of that mattered in crunch time.
With junior Melvin Gordon needed a breather late in the third quarter with the Badgers driving for their first lead of the game, Clement – who was worried about his vision, lateral movement and ability to hit holes after his layoff – shifted his way through the Minnesota defense, broke a tackle inside the 20 and barreled over the goal line with two defenders on him.
“The ability for Corey to come in, and not just come in and spell Melvin but make tremendous plays … those were big-time moments when we needed him,” said UW coach Gary Andersen. “That’s another guy on this football team that step up.”
Clement calls his pain level “irritating,” feeling his arm briefly go dead after any small amount of contact before the feeling returns. He feels it will stick with him the remainder of the season, a reason he calls it motivation to break out for the next play.
That next play happened to be a 31-yard run down to the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, setting up Gordon for a 1-yard plunge and a 27-17 lead.
“I’ve got to either suck it up or quit, fold on my teammates, and that’s not who I am,” said Clement. “I just wanted to show that the tough character that I am, willing to lay it on the line for my teammates.”
The same could be said for Wheelwright, who had hardly played in critical spots after his route running mistake led to an interception against Western Illinois in week two.
After Minnesota (8-4, 5-3) cut the lead to 27-24 with 7:32 remaining, Wheelwright got himself open down the middle of the field for a wide-open 17-yard touchdown grab, the proverbial dagger that punched the ticket to Indianapolis.
Wheelwright was in for Erickson on the play because he was dinged up on a 31-yard wide receiver screen two plays earlier.
“I was just kind of sitting back and watching the game,” said Wheelwright, whose older brother, Ernie Wheelwright, played at Minnesota. “Coach (Andersen) called on my number and I went in there … It went by so fast and was so unreal that I really didn’t think too much about catching the ball.”
Members of Wisconsin had spoken in the days leading up to the finale that the Badgers’ underclassmen took last year’s senior day loss to Penn State personally. Neither team had anything to play for in terms of a championship, but Wisconsin – a 20-plus point favorite – was thoroughly and soundly beaten by an undermanned Nittany Lions team.
“It was a tough day,” said Andersen, referring to last year’s loss. “We played against a very talented team. They executed, and they frankly deserved to win that football game, and did. It was tough to see those kids go out that way when they’ve done so many things and fought so hard within a program.”
This year was shaping up to happen the same way but with much higher stakes. Missed tackle, missed opportunity and poor execution all led to Wisconsin trailing for the entire first half and well into the third quarter, being dominated by an angry Gophers team – tired of playing second fiddle in Division 1’s longest running rivalry – that was able to flip field position when their drives stalled and cashed in with the Badgers’ special team failed to deliver.
A Kenzel Doe fumble off a punt return and a Drew Meyer dud punt gave the Gophers the ball at the Wisconsin 13 and 40, respectively, and resulted in a pair of first-quarter touchdowns in a combined three plays.
It had eerie similarities to the Nebraska game two weeks ago, as the Cornhuskers converted a Doe fumble and a poor punt into 14 points in a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter. Problem was the Gophers are a lot mentally stronger than the fragile Huskers.
But as they’ve shown the last few weeks, Wisconsin is pretty mentally strong, too. Right before halftime, a fumble by Minnesota tailback David Cobb at the UW 30 proved to be the key turning point, especially after quarterback Joel Stave completed consecutive passes to Erickson for 35 and 14 yards to set up Rafael Gaglianone’s 38-yard field.
Instead of being down 20-10, or worse, UW trailed 17-13 and began its push to the title game.
“It’s so fun to play with these guys, and I think everybody on this team feels that way,” said senior tight end Sam Arneson. “Far from an ideal start, but no panic, nobody was pointing fingers, just sticking together and getting things right. We finished strong. That’s all that really mattered.”