Wisconsin fans only had to wait 95 seconds for the party to start.
The No.25 Wisconsin Badgers (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) ended the Gophers opening drive by returning a Minnesota fumble for a touchdown and never looked back, pounding the hapless Gophers (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) 48-12 to retained Paul Bunyan's Axe for the third consecutive year.
Wisconsin wasted no time in jumping on Minnesota and their young running back Amir Pinnix. On his third carry on Minnesota's opening drive, Pinnix was blindsided by sophomore Jason Chapman and coughed up the ball. The fumbled was recovered by sophomore DB Jack Ikeguonu and he went untouched for the 50-yard touchdown and the quick 7-0 lead for the Badgers.
"Coach always tells the [outside corners] to get to the ball," Ikegwuonu said. "I moved up on the ball and it came out. Things like that happen. Good things happen and confidence builds like it did today."
After a Minnesota punt, it was time for the Wisconsin to showcase their offense, particularly P.J. Hill. Hill bombarded the Gopher defense with a variety of draws, sweeps and bruising running that kept Minnesota guessing.
With Wisconsin facing a fourth-and-one on Minnesota's 33-yard line, the Badgers called Hill's number again and he delivered, bruising for 28 yards and another Wisconsin first down. Hill would finish off the drive from there, going five-yards for his first of two touchdowns on the day and gave the Badgers a 14-point cushion. On the day, Hill rushed 25 times for 164 yards, going over 1,000 yards for the season.
"Anytime you go into game, you want to establish the run first because that opens up the pass and that's what happened today," senior tackle Joe Thomas said. "We go into the game with a list of plays we wanted to run, but especially against a team like Minnesota who like to run the ball, we wanted to step on them early and keep the accelerator down."
Despite only passing three times, Wisconsin had a 14-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. But, the Wisconsin passing game was about to kick it into high gear. Senior quarterback John Stocco took the Badgers 53 yards in just seven plays as he found junior Luke Swan in the corner of the end zone for the receiver's second career touchdown and to increase the Badgers lead.
Stocco continued to take advantage of Minnesota patchwork pass defense, which was ranked tenth in the Big Ten in pass defense coming into the week. After another drive set up by Hill's running attack, Stocco executed a beautiful play action pass on the Gopher's two.
After faking the handoff to Hill, Stocco quietly held the ball on his right hip, giving TE Andy Crooks just enough time to get wide open in the end zone and the rout was on.
With the Badgers leading 28-3 at halftime, head coach Bret Bielema stressed to his team to not let up on Minnesota and keep playing hard.
"I walked in at halftime and I asked what the score was and everybody said 0-0," Bielema said. "We have them programmed pretty good. They understand what we want and they are in a good frame of mind."
Although Wisconsin's offense stayed prolific, adding two touchdowns by Travis Beckum and another one by Hill, the Badgers defense made just as many big hits on the Gophers. The Badgers forced two turnovers by the Gophers, constantly pressured Minnesota quarterback Bryan Cupito for three sacks and allowed Minnesota to gain only one yard of total offense over a 20 minute span of game time.
"Everyday is an opportunity to get better and we need to take advantage of that," Ikegwuonu said. "We're playing with a high level of confidence and we're working hard everyday."
With the game well in hand, Stocco started connecting with one of his brand new favorite targets, Travis Beckum. Beckum, who has recorded a catch in each game so far for Wisconsin, led the Badgers in all passing categories against Minnesota, hauling in five catches for 118 yards and two second half touchdowns of 40 and four yards. Not too bad for a player that came to Wisconsin as a defender.
"He's got great charisma," Bielema said. "He's a playmaker. He's one of those kids that has the ability to change the game. He came in here as a very raw player, needing to learn the finer points of the tight end position in terms of blocking as well as receiving and the [coaches] have done well with him."
After playing in 10 games last year primarily as a reserve on defense and on special teams, Beckum made the switch to the tight end possession in part to replace then-senior Owen Daniels. But primarily to utilize his athleticism on the field. Although the transition hasn't been easy, it's starting to pay off for Beckum and his buddy Andy Crooks, who also made the change from defense to offense in the off-season.
"I kind of initiated [the change]," Beckum said. "I asked coach B what he thought about me playing tight end and he said we discuss at the end of summer training. We did that and in carried over. We knew it wasn't going to be easy and spent extra time studying plays and getting our feet under us. But the [whole process] is coming along good."
As good as Beckum and the defense was against Minnesota, the day belong to senior quarterback John Stocco, who could do no wrong against the Gophers. Playing against his home state's team, Stocco completed 12 of 19 passes for only 193 yards, but registered four touchdowns to three different receivers.
With such a big rivalry game on the schedule and being ranked nationally for the first time this season, Coach Bielema made it a point to be sure to humble his team and focus on the work that needed to be done against Minnesota. He had to remind every player, except for just one person.
"John is a winner, he knows and understands what it takes to win," Bielema said. "He knows how to handle things. I have to be the humbler on this team as they get better and better, but I don't have to do that with John. He's about as ‘steady-eddy' as they come."
For Stocco, it was a perfect way to end his five-year battle with the Gophers and he was going to be sure he got to the coveted axe first.
"It's awesome and feels great," Stocco said. "Being a senior, and I sure all the other seniors feel the same way, having the axe stay here at our last go at it is really special.
"I was waiting for [the axe] well before [the game] was over. I was getting my hands on it first."