Joel Stave summed up his pick-six interception on the first offensive play from scrimmage in one word: dumb.
A run-pass option for the senior, Stave checked to the quick screen because he saw the linebackers shift to the inside. It cost UW seven points. Briean Boddy-Calhoun said he was expecting that play, a play that UW beat him on last year, and immediately crashed inside, causing Alex Erickson to whiff on the block and give him an easy waltz into the end zone.
Liked he always does, Stave owned the mistake, saying a run against a stacked box was better than a throw into tight coverage, and rebounded from it. It’s part of the reason why he’s won 30 games in his UW career.
“He knew right when he go to him that was dumb and I shouldn’t have thrown it,” said head coach Paul Chryst. “You appreciate the way he owns it … He came back and was big.”
Stave was not sharp against Minnesota but finally got the support of a running game to take some pressure off of him. He missed a wide-open Erickson in the flat and waited too long to attempt a pass to Jordan Fredrick on a crossing route. Fredrick was open but Stave’s delay in throwing him in the ball caused the defensive back to catch up and cause the incompletion.
Even with the hiccups, Stave made some critical throws early in the first half on third down that extended touchdown drives. He hit Erickson on third-and-7 early in UW’s first scoring drive and again on third-and-5 on UW’s next scoring drive.
It was a fitting performance: some good, some bad and mostly just steady.
Finally it emerges and not a moment too soon. Wisconsin felt it could run on a banged-up Minnesota defense, and the Badgers were right. UW rushed for 100 yards in the first quarter (more than three Big Ten games), 199 in the first half (more than six Big Ten games) and 257 overall – a season high for Big Ten play.
At one point UW called 16 straight run plays, as the Badgers got into a nice rhythm on the ground.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve been able to do that,” said Chryst.
Dare Ogunbowale finally showed some flashes running the football. More importantly he looked like a workhorse. His 33 carries was easily a career high, as was the 151 yards he churned out against a Gophers defense that clearly had no answer to stop him.
His best run was his 18-yard touchdown run where he bounces to the outside of left tackle Tyler Marz, picked up a key block from Troy Fumagalli and outran the defense to the end zone.
“People have been saying that Wisconsin’s running game isn’t the same,” said Ogunbowale. “Obviously a big game like the Minnesota game, a rivalry game, fighting for the Axe, I wanted to make sure that I came out and made it a point to establish the run and make plays. That’s always what it comes down to, who makes more plays.”
Taiwan Deal, who hasn’t been the same since injury his ankle against Nebraska, had the same mindset and also delivered with 90 yards on 22 carries and two scores, including a 13-yard run that was so well blocked by Derek Watt out front, Beau Benzschawel on the pull block and Austin Traylor sealing his man to the outside.
“We came out and believed in our run game,” said Deal. “Coming out and bringing the Axe back to Madison with a great run game feels really good.”
Alec Ingold scored his sixth rushing touchdown on a 1-yard plunge. UW scored two times by running the ball from the 1-yard line. Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda.
Having a combined three carries over his first three seasons, Watt had three carries for 10 yards in his final Axe game (all career highs) but his work blocking for the backs was what stood out. A number of times Watt’s lead block added many more yards on to a short gain.
UW rushed for only 58 yards on 27 carries in the second half but did enough damage in the first half to produce the win.
Hard to judge a group that only had nine catches and didn’t appear to have any major flubs. Wisconsin pounded the ball and didn’t really deviate from what was successful. Erickson had six catches for 66 yards, including those two big grabs on third downs. Five of Erickson’s six catches came on third down and the final third-down numbers (9 of 18) show the success.
UW’s young receivers should watch those on a loop to know what it takes to be a playmaker in big situations.
Like I said it’s hard to grade this group since Jazz Peavy (1 for 10) and Fredrick (1 for 2) were the only other contributors, but Erickson did his part.
The seventh different offensive line on the season delivered. Not only did Wisconsin run against Minnesota’s inexperienced front, the Badgers gave up no sacks and no quarterback hurries on 17 pass attempts.
The work of Benzschawel was impressive considering it was his first career start. With Jacob Maxwell doing a nice job at right tackle, it wouldn’t be shocking to see offensive line coach Joe Rudolph give Benzschawel a closer at guard in the spring.
“It was actually really nice being able to play next to Beau,” said Maxwell. “I really feel comfortable playing next to him. He did phenomenal playing at guard. You couldn’t ask for a better job by anyone.”
Wisconsin felt they could average four yards per carry against the Gophers and surpassed that number at 4.1. There were some missed opportunities in the second half for Wisconsin to finish the game off, but the performance by four redshirt freshmen playing next to each other should get fans excited for next season.
“We’re all young and all have bright futures ahead of us,” said Maxwell. “We all have starting experience now.”
Minnesota’s rushing attack was a big reason the Gophers beat Illinois the week before. The Gophers ran for 255 yards against the Illini and got 174 from Shannon Brooks. Minnesota got nowhere close to those numbers against Wisconsin, as the Badgers held Brooks to eight yards on five carries and Minnesota to 53 yards on 18 carries (2.9 average). After the first quarter, the Gophers had one rushing yard.
Even Mitch Leidner – a running threat at quarterback – could manage only 10 yards on six carries, eight coming on one play. UW didn’t allow a run longer than eight yards and only gave up a 6-yard touchdown to Rodney Smith on a run outside the left tackle.
The line combined for only one tackle but were instrumental in Minnesota’s offense generating next to nothing throughout the game.
Vince Biegel registered the group’s only sack but the linebackers were constantly in the face of Leidner throughout the game, altering the quarterback’s ability to go through his reads. Biegel led the team with six solo tackles and a pair of tackles for loss, while T.J. Edwards (six) was again in the middle of things.
Joe Schobert didn’t rack up a ton of tackles (five) but made plays count. He forced a fumble on Leidner in the second quarter while securing the tackle, giving UW’s offense a short field to cash in a touchdown and intercepted a pass in the third quarter that led to a field goal. He initially scored a touchdown, but sophomore backer Jack Cichy drew a 15-yard penalty for targeting, throwing a block that was not needed for the score.
“I think we’ve been a great defense all year; we just haven’t got those turnovers,” said Schobert. “The ball bounced the wrong way sometimes. Just flying around to the football, putting our hats on the ball and being able to come up with those opportunities when they presented itself was big.”
After converting to outside linebacker from tight end in the spring, T.J. Watt’s comfort level has grown immensely. He tipped the pass that led to Schobert’s interception and rushed Leidner that led to another one. With Schobert graduating after this season, Watt will be in the discussion for that starting spot.
“He’s shown up and you’ve noticed him,” said Chryst. “I think he is starting to feel comfortable. Using him in different packages so he’s not just a backup. It seems like he’s showing up each game, and I know he’s getting more comfortable. That’s fun to see.”
Returning after missing three games with a left leg abscess on his shin, Chris Orr played only in the second half and made a tackle, a good sign for him that he’s getting closer to 100 percent.
“I was itching to get back and ready to knock the rust off,” said Orr.
In addition to Cichy’s targeting call, which will suspend him for the first half of the bowl game, he dropped an interception for the second straight week.
One series after Schobert’s forced fumble, Michael Caputo forced one while securing a tackle. And for the second straight drive, cornerback Darius Hillary recovered the fumble, which led to a UW touchdown.
“The seniors have to lead and the leaders have to lead,” said Hillary. “The seniors definitely came out and made plays.”
Tanner McEvoy netted a pair of gift interceptions in the fourth quarter, one along each sidelined, that put the final nails in the Minnesota coffin. They made up for a couple of flubbed tackles, including one on Drew Wolitarsky that went for a 27-yard touchdown.
“They obviously had the pass the ball more at the end of the game, so we could predict what they were going to do,” said McEvoy. “We took advantage of the opportunities … The last (interception) was a gift but you’ll take those.”
UW gave up four pass plays of at least 20 yards, something the unit will have to correct for the finale, but the Badgers mostly held up in one-on-one coverage.
Drew Meyer’s turnaround regular season closed with a nice chapter, averaging 41.3 yards on his seven punts. He showed a combination of leg strength (a 53-yard and 54-yard kick) and accuracy (putting three punts inside the 20). Most importantly, he put his coverage units in position to make plays, as Minnesota gained no yards on two returns.
Wisconsin’s kick coverage started slow (returns of 24 and 33 to start) and finished better. Hardin’s next two returns went for 20 and 25, followed by him fumbling out of bounds after Jack Russell’s high pooch kick near the sideline.
Kicker Andrew Endicott netted a pair of tackles, including one that prevented a likely long return into UW territory.
Rafael Gaglianone hit a 46-yard kick in the third quarter that was well struck and appeared to add a 40-yarder at the end of the quarter, only to have it wiped off the board by a holding penalty on Zander Neuville. His 50-yard re-kick fell short.
Natrell Jamerson delivered a handful of nice tackles on special teams, including one on Meyer’s 42-yard punt in the second quarter. He beat his blocked down the right side and drilled Hardin for no gain at the Gophers’ 16-yard line. His only gaff was when he lost field awareness trying to down a punt, resulting in a touchback.