MINNEAPOLIS – As senior linebacker Joe Schobert got Paul Bunyan’s Axe in his hands after another rivalry triumph, the word ‘relief’ came to mind.
While “chopping down” the goal post won’t erase the stigma of letting a couple winnable conference home games slip away, keeping the Badgers at home next weekend instead of representing the Big Ten West in the league championship game, Wisconsin's 31-21 victory over Minnesota was cathartic on so many levels.
The running game finally hit its stride, the defense forced a bevy of turnovers that set up scores and Wisconsin’s physicality in the trenches – starting four redshirt freshman offensive linemen nonetheless – wore down a Minnesota defense to the tune of 336 yards.
And, oh yeah, Wisconsin added to the misery of Minnesota by knocking off the Gophers for a 12th straight year, denying their rivals bowl eligibility to boot.
“It’s just great to have it (the Axe) in your hands again knowing it’s coming back to Madison,” said Schobert. “Obviously we don’t want to be the senior class to give it over to Minnesota after 12 straight years of winning it. All the hard work comes to a fruition at the end of the year in this rivalry game.”
All the stars appeared to be aligning for Minnesota (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten) to end over a decade in disappointment, but the Gophers always seem to bring out the best in the Badgers and the worst in themselves.
The much-maligned running game, held to an unfathomable minus-26 rushing yards in last week’s 13-7 loss to Northwestern, erupted for the first time in conference play. UW was averaging 109.6 rushing yards in conference games, worst in the league, but exploded for 257 yards. That included 199 yards and four touchdowns in the first half and a steady diet throughout the game.
Of the 79 plays UW ran, 62 were on the ground, allowing the Badgers to hold the ball for 40 minutes, 35 seconds and limit Minnesota to only six first-quarter plays and nine third-quarter plays.
“The big thing today was just moving the ball four yards at a time, and after a while we’re getting 15, 20 yards at times,” said right tackle Jacob Maxwell, who made his second start at right tackle after Beau Benzschawel was shifted inside for his first start at right guard. “It was really nice to actually run the ball instead of drop back and pass.”
Losing the turnover battle 5-0 a week ago, the Badgers forced two second-quarter fumbles in Minnesota territory that resulted in 14 points. Not surprisingly, three seniors were in the middle of them, as Schobert and Michael Caputo each forced a fumble and Darius Hillary recovered them both, one of Gopher 34 and another on the Minnesota 48.
Throw in two Tanner McEvoy interceptions in the fourth quarter and all the turnovers were created by seniors.
“(Most) of those guys have been here for four or five years and worked their (butts) off over that time,” said Schobert, who also intercepted a third-quarter pass that helped Wisconsin add three more points to its total. “It’s great for the final game of the regular season to be able to have a performance like this where the hard work is shown to the people who are watching.”
Feeling momentum was on its side coming off a home win over Illinois, celebrating senior day and having recently retired coach Jerry Kill on the sidelines, Minnesota had the crowd rocking when cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun jumped a receiver screen – UW’s first offensive play of the game – and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown.
The energy in the building was still there when the Gophers finally answered two lengthy touchdown drives by the Badgers – combined for 24 plays, 140 yards and 12:19 off the clock – with a Rodney Smith 6-yard rushing touchdown, tying the score with 10:34 left in the first half.
It fleeted away after that, as Wisconsin pounded the ball down Minnesota’s throats. Of UW’s 41 first-half plays, 35 of them came on the ground, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
“That was, I thought, the key, the way we came back and did respond,” said Wisconsin Coach Paul Chryst, as UW followed the interception with a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown drive. “That is part of who we are right now. We do stuff to put ourselves behind the eight ball, but they keep playing. They don’t flinch.”
The passing game was mostly abandoned early with the consistent success on the ground and the pick six, but quarterback Joel Stave and receiver Alex Erickson helped the offense redeem itself on third down.
Converting only 39.7 percent on third down this season, including just 2 of 13 last week, Wisconsin converted 9 of 18 on third down, including 6 of 7 in the first half that included a couple big completions early in scoring drives on third and medium.
“That was cool to do,” said Stave, who won his 30th game as a starter to tie Brooks Bollinger for the most in school history. “That’s the name of the game; you’ve got to be able to convert third downs. If you can’t, it’s going to be tough to win games. We were able to convert some big third downs those first couple drives.”
Wisconsin now awaits its postseason bowl destination, with many believing it will be the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec.30. Wherever it will be, the Badgers will be going knowing that things are looking much better than they were a week ago.
“This group, they appreciate what they’ve all done to earn the right to play another game,” said Chryst. “There is certainly momentum from a season, but each day is a new opportunity, every week is a new opportunity and the bowl game is another opportunity."