Once again, Disarray at the Dome

After Wisconsin's improbable victory two years ago, it looked like the Badgers, 14-point favorites against 1-10 Minnesota, would see very few fireworks from their opponents. Once again, history repeats itself at the Metrodome.

MINNEAPOLIS - The most-played rivalry in Division I football, the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Wisconsin Badgers have met 117 times since 1890 and have been battling for the coveted ‘Paul Bunyan's Axe' since 1948. Although Minnesota leads the series 59-50-8, Wisconsin has owned the series in recent years, winning 11 of the last 13 games between the two schools. Lately, the ‘border battle' has proved to be a high scoring contest, with the last seven meetings leading to an average total 68 points per game between the two teams.

This year's senior class, notably the winningest class in UW history with a 40-10 record during their four years, has beaten Minnesota in every meeting, keeping the coveted axe in their possession. When played at Camp Randall, the Badgers came away with undeniably decisive victories.

Wins in Minneapolis, on the other hand, haven't come without a fight.

In 2005, the Badgers came out on top in a memorable, and seemingly improbable, wini. Although the Gophers enjoyed a comfortable 34-24 lead late in the fourth quarter, UW managed to pull off the exciting comeback. With a quick offensive drive resulting in a touchdown pass from John Stocco to Brandon Williams, the Badgers pulled to within three. When the Gophers' next drive failed, then-freshman Jonathan Casillas blocked the Minnesota punt with 30 seconds left in the game, resulting with then-freshman Ben Strickland recovering the ball in the Gopher end zone, giving UW the winning score and sending Minnesota into a state of shock.

In true Metrodome fashion, Saturday's game in Minneapolis ended with its fair share of unpredictable plays. The game never felt ‘controlled' by either team. Wisconsin certainly was the team to catch up to; holding the lead for the majority of the second half. Yet, in true Metrodome fashion, Minnesota managed to keep the game uncomfortably close.

"I don't know what it is with these games," said kicker Taylor Mehlhaff. "We finish out the season pretty strong, playing well and confident, and then we come over here. I don't know why it always turns out like this. They were treating this like their bowl game."

Mehlhaff's sentiments echo many other UW players and fans. Wisconsin was a 14-point favorite going in to the game, yet didn't easily settle in to a rhythm of any kind. This victory was anything but decisive, as the Gophers didn't lose their fight until time expired.

"Minnesota wasn't just going to go down [easily]," senior Ben Strickland said. "We knew it was going to be a dog fight."

During this senior class tenure, the Metrodome has proven a difficult place for the Badgers to play— of UW's last 10 losses to the Gophers, six have been at the Metrodome. Even Wisconsin's wins there have been elusive. Four points or less, including an overtime victory in 1999, have decided four of the last six Badger victories in Minnesota.

Today followed that pattern, with no clear dominance displayed by either team, especially by the Badgers, as Wisconsin struggles plagued the entire team throughout the first half.

"We had some opportunities in the first half that we were not able to capitalize on," said Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema. "Anything that could go wrong (in the first half) did go wrong)."

Wisconsin first half woes were suffered from missed scoring opportunities, as Mehlhaff missed a 39-yard chip shot and a 46-yard try at the close of the half. Having made ten consecutive field goals prior to today, Mehlhaff suffered his first miss since the Penn State game and just his third and fourth miss of the season.

"I was frustrated by my poor performance in their first half," Mehlhaff said. "I just pushed the first one and over compensated on the one at the end of the half."

Despite first half inconsistencies, Wisconsin pulled together a 34-27 by late in the fourth quarter—albeit a thin one. Just like in UW's last visit, Wisconsin benefited from a crucial Minnesota error— a misplayed punt return by Minnesota's Harold Howell resulted in the Badger senior Steve Johnson recovering the football deep in Gopher territory.

Two quick plays later, UW earned a 41-34 lead with just 5:11 left in the game.

Bielema attributed the Minnesota fumble as a ‘huge momentum changer.'

As Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster recognized, however, the Gophers still ‘fought their guts out'. After just 34 ticks of the game clock, Minnesota had put up another touchdown.

The final score remained at 41-34, but Wisconsin didn't feel secure in their victory until the very end.

"The only reason this was a crazy game was because we let it," Bielema said. "[But] our guys weren't going to be denied the opportunity to carry that axe around the field."

Simply said by Ben Strickland, "We're thankful we got the win."

And win Wisconsin did, lifting their season record to a final of 9-3 and, more importantly, four straight over the Gophers.

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