The University of Wisconsin offense got the Badgers back into this game after falling behind 21-7 at halftime. But it was UW's defense and special teams that put the winning points on the board … without the benefit of a touchdown or field goal.
Wisconsin recorded two safeties in a 2:29 span to break a 24-24 tie in the fourth quarter, and finished off the Gophers in what should undeniably go down as the high point of Wisconsin's season – a night on which the Badgers salvaged a season gone bad by claiming bowl eligibility.
The Badgers had not earned two safeties in one game since Sept. 11, 2004, an 18-3 win over UNLV in Madison. Matter of fact, those are the last two safeties Wisconsin has recorded before Saturday afternoon.
"That's actually some of the talk that, earlier in the season, when we had teams backed up in their own territory, that none of us had ever scored on defense before," senior defensive tackle Mike Newkirk said. "It was something that we always wanted to do, and we were able to get two of them today."
A popular chant among UW students at Wisconsin-Minnesota games is "Safety School", in reference to Minnesota's arguable status as a weaker academic program than Wisconsin's.
The first two-point play came on a kickoff return with 13:16 left in the game, with the score tied at 24. Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire got boxed in around his own 8-yard-line, and UW cornerback Antonio Fenelus popped the ball loose on a hard hit. The ball bounced out of the back of the end zone for a UW safety.
Fenelus is a true freshman, and has been one of the most dynamic Badgers on special teams coverages this season. This play topped them all, though.
"We always call him a miniature Scott Starks, he's just kind of a small guy like that, real quick," safety Chris Maragos said, in reference to the former Wisconsin cornerback. "He's a little pint-sized dude, but he'll come up and hit you. I think he's really brought a good asset to our team."
Added cornerback Allen Langford: "You want guys to grow up in the program, and right now he's growing up. He's going to be a heck of a player."
After UW went three-and-out on the next drive, punter Brad Nortman pinned the Gophers down inside their own 10-yard line. Newkirk sacked quarterback Adam Weber at the 2-yard line on first down, then on 3rd-and-16 finished the deal by bringing down Weber again for the Badgers' second safety of the game – and of the season.
"When we're down there that close, it's a goal to get a safety, put points up," defensive end O'Brien Schofield said. "The defense gets to score and then get the offense the ball back. Newk getting that sack, that was a big play, especially as a senior, I was proud of him."
Newkirk called the sack the biggest of his career.
"It was pretty nice," Newkirk said. "You get close so many times, the guy gets rid of it, throws it away. It was nice that he held onto it for me."
One of the most well-spoken players on the Badgers, Newkirk admitted that he didn't have as strong a game as people might think. The statistics would disagree; Newkirk recorded seven tackles and two sacks, both team highs.
The important part was, Newkirk was at his best in the big moment.
"To be honest with you, I don't feel that my personal performance was anything outstanding today," Newkirk said. "It was probably average. But you get a couple tackles and those two on that one series, and everybody thinks you went out there and were a world-beater.
"The credit goes to the other three guys on the line … the ends did an outstanding job."
Weber held onto the ball too long, which would indicate the safety wasn't just a result of Newkirk's tough play, but credit belongs to the defensive backs as well. Nobody was open; the secondary did its job forcing Weber to stay in the pocket and in the end zone.
"I'm a DB, so of course I'm going to say yeah," Langford said with a laugh when asked if it was a coverage sack. "From what I was told on the sideline, we stayed in coverage pretty good, and our defensive line got there and was able to get the sack. That's really big-time for a defense."
Newkirk, Maragos and Langford all said they've never been part of a defense that has notched two safeties in one game.
Timing was impeccable for their first times. Those four points ended up being the difference in a three-point win.
"Oh, it's definitely gratifying," Langford said. "That's something that you look forward to as a defense, to make those big-time plays and sustain that for your team."