MINNEAPOLIS - No one expected much out of Wisconsin’s rushing attack, a unit that had been dormant through seven previous Big Ten games.
After their dreadful performance one week earlier in the 13-7 loss to Northwestern, held to minus-26 yards on 26 carries, Wisconsin’s proud running tradition ranked 10th in the Big Ten and 103rd in the nation in rushing, averaging 138.2 yards per contest, not to mention dead last in the Big Ten in conference games with 109.6 yards.
Throw in the fact Wisconsin trotted out four redshirt freshmen on its offensive line – the seven different combination in 12 games – and another ugly performance appeared in the cards.
The only belief in what the Badgers were trying to do was in the Wisconsin locker room.
“We came out and believed in our run game,” said freshman tailbak Taiwan Deal. “Coming into this game, we thought we had to establish the run. Let’s get back to where Wisconsin can run the ball. All week in practice we worked hard and came out ready to run the ball.”
And run the ball they did. With Paul Bunyan’s Axe at risk, Wisconsin’s run game came alive, pacing the offense with 199 yards on 35 carries in the first half to set the tone for a 31-21 victory over Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium.
Averaging 4.1 yards per rush, Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) ran the ball on 62 of the 79 offensive plays for 257 yards – the most since running for 326 yards against Hawaii a little more than two months ago.
“Finally things just clicked,” said junior tailback Dare Ogunbowale, who rushed for a career-high 155 yards (131 in the first half) on 33 carries. “The o-line was covering up there guys me and Taiwan were making guys miss behind them. It was a fun game.”
Knowing redshirt junior right guard Walker Williams wasn’t going to be play on Sunday, head coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph to insert redshirt freshman Jacob Maxwell at right tackle for his second career start and slide Beau Benzschawel – the right tackle starter for the last six games – to inside at right guard.
The left side of the offensive line stayed the same with senior Tyler Marz at left tackle, with redshirt freshmen Micah Kapoi and Michael Dieter at left guard and center, respectively. It was a combination that clicked for the Wisconsin offensive line, despite Benzschawel being relatively unfamiliar at the position.
“Guys are stepping in,” said Marz. “That’s what we need. That’s what we have to do. We just don’t have the depth otherwise.”
The dominance against Minnesota’s front seven started after Wisconsin’s first series, where quarterback Joel Stave threw a pick-six to put the Gophers up 7-0. During that 10-play drive, a critical response at an early juncture, the Badgers ran the ball nine times for 56 yards, ending with true freshman Alec Ingold’s one-yard touchdown to tie the game.
It continued in their second series: 13 of the 14 play calls were runs and the success continues. The 13 rushes went for 60 of the drive’s 73 yards, and ended with the first of two touchdowns for Deal, putting Wisconsin ahead 14-7 early in the second quarter.
“We find ways to win,” said Marz. “We’re never too high or too low. We never think we’re out of a game. That’s a great thing to have in a team.”
The Gophers tied the game at 14 and held the Badgers’ offense at bay for one series, but a forced fumble by senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert – one of five UW takeaways - gave the ball back to the offense on Minnesota’s 34-yard line. Four plays later - on four runs - Wisconsin took the lead for good with Deal going in from 13 yards out to make it 21-14. Benzschawel was instrumental on that drive, pulling and providing blocks to spring both Deal and Ogunbowale.
Deal would finish the game with 90 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns, and pounded opposing Gophers - who were without starting defensive linemen Scott Ekpe and Steve Richardson for the game - throughout the first two quarters.
“Coming out having the offensive line click and the running backs click, it was just a great feeling being able to run the ball,” said Deal.
While Deal provided the “Thunder,” Ogunbowale brought the “Lightning.” The converted cornerback, used his agility and speed to rush to frustrate the Gophers front, not to mention spinning and juking defenders to register an 18-yard touchdown to increase the score to 28-14 with 1:11 left in the first half.
“That was fun, just to be able to get some consistency in the run game and hit some big plays, especially in the first half,” said Stave. “Being able to stay ahead of the chains was big for us.”
Chryst admitted the play calling got a little conservative in the second half but the damage had already been done because the run game -- with the offensive line, tight ends, and running backs -- gave one of its most complete performances of the year.
“Especially first half, I thought guys did a nice job and credit to the o-line,” he said. “I thought fullbacks, tight ends were good and they were on point, and rose to the challenge. I thought Dare and (Taiwan) ran extremely well, so that was big."