It took a couple games, but junior quarterback Scott Tolzien finally showed he was human … somewhat.
"I just grabbed his arm and told him that he was going to respond to the right situation," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "You've done this before, as far as making first downs and moving forward and he responded pretty well after that."
Tolzien's numbers (16 of 26 for 159 yards, one TD, one INT) aren't eye popping, but his ability to make plays on third down Saturday were. Entering the game completing 24-of-33 passes for 274 yards on third down, Tolzien went 5-for-8 for 66 yards against the Gophers, all of his completions resulting in first downs.
"I do have confidence that I can still make plays and put defense on their heels," said Tolzien, who also ran a 47-yard naked bootleg that set up the winning score. "It's all about moving the chains, especially with our offense."
Added Bielema: "(Offensive coordinator) Paul (Chryst) has a quarterback in Scotty that really understands key one to key two to key three."
Tolzien even made things happen with his legs, although he described his own running style as 'slow.'
After Minnesota cut the lead to 24-21 with less than seven minutes left, Tolzien ran a 47-yard naked quarterback bootleg to get the ball down to the Minnesota 5. John Clay was in the end zone two plays later.
"When we give so much action to the point of attack with John, there's a couple things going on," Bielema said. "You've got the ball coming down hill, you've got a reverse looking with the wide receiver and then the quarterback (rolls) out with it. There are a lot of things with a defensive player to see. What I liked what the double forearm grip. He wasn't going to out run that DB from the other side."
The coaching staff has so much confidence in Tolzien that Chryst decided to throw the ball on third-and-8 late in the game instead of running at least 40 seconds off the clock. The incompletion gave Minnesota a chance to tie with one minute, 43 seconds left, but UW's defense prevailed.
"Paul wanted to throw it, and I at first hesitated," said Bielema, but approved the play call. "I clicked over to the defense and said, 'Hey, I'm going to let him throw it here.' And the first thing (Defensive Coordinator) Dave (Doeren) said was, 'Why?'
"We felt good about the throw. They defended it. I think they kind of caught on that we might be doing it as well."
More importantly, no sacks against Tolzien or the offensive line and just two on the season … an amazing stat.
If this is how John Clay reacts coming off the bench, the Badgers might not want to tweak things with their No.2 tailback. Their No.1 tailback, however, needs some work.
Whether he needs to get hit a few times or not, Clay has been hard to stop the past two weeks, rushing for 326 yards in the last two games. Against Minnesota, Clay had a career-high 184 yards on 32 carries, going over the 100-yard rushing plateau for the third time in five games, and scored three touchdowns.
Even more impressive was at halftime, Clay has only six carries for 25 yards and a touchdown and on virtually every carry, Clay fell forward, adding two or three yards to his rushing total.
"He has an affect on the game. He just wears you down," Bielema said. "We were steadily wearing them down. That's just what we do."
The last time Wisconsin was in Minnesota, a draw play for Zach Brown went for a touchdown. This time, that same play went for a touchdown again, although this score went for the Gophers, as Brown fumbled before hitting the ground. He finished with six carried for 39 yards.
"We thought we could get good ball security on that play, line up and kick a field goal and kind of have a game-in-hand situation," Bielema said. "We'll go back to some ball security with Zach Brown, but I thought John Clay, the o-line, the response that Scotty gave after a couple turnovers was tremendous."
Montee Ball got his first carries of his young career, carrying the ball four times for five yards, but Clay carried the workload, especially after Brown was benched after the fumble.
"We're like a family," Clay said. "We're here for each other. One of us messes up and then we're always there to pick each other up, telling them to keep their heads up and telling them we've always got their back."
Thanks to Clay, the Badgers had plenty to smile about leaving TCF Bank Stadium.
Lance Kendricks caught only two passes, but one was for 25 yards (the longest of the game) on third-and-2 and the other being a leaping catch in the back of the end zone that Kendricks worked hard to get his right foot down in the back of the end zone before falling out of bounds.
The catch gave UW a 24-13 lead and Kendricks 12 receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns in UW's last three games after not catching a pass the first two games.
"He's just buying into it," Bielema said of Kendricks. "If he continues to do what he's doing, he's going to be another tight end in a long story of great ones here."
Toon added four catches for 33 yards, Minneapolis native Isaac Anderson grabbed two catches for 19 yards and Maurice Moore came up big on third down, grabbing a nine-yard pass on a drive that set up a UW touchdown.
Bielema didn't hesitate when he talked about why UW's defense in the second half has been so solid this season, including in the second half of a game where the Gophers amassed just 119 total yards. UW's defensive line has depth, and Bielema mentioned Jordan Hein, Jeff Stehle, Patrick Butrym, Dan Moore, J.J. Watt, O'Brien Schofield, David Gilbert, Brendan Kelly and Louis Nzegwu all by name.
Schofield is already having a memorable season. The senior added to his impressive tackles for loss total, registering two quarterback sacks, three-and-a-half TFLs, a pass breakup and forced the fumble on Minnesota's last drive that clinched the win for the Badgers.
"I can't say enough about O'Brien Schofield," Bielema said. "He's playing with unbelievable passion."
Butrym played his best game of his career, registering four tackles, a half sack and his first career interception in the third quarter when he was in the right place at the right time.
He also made up for an illegal participation he drew when he was late getting off the field as UW was changing defenses, negating an interception by linebacker Michael Taylor that would have effectively ended the game. Minnesota scored one play later with just over two minutes to go.
On the next drive, Butrym's pressure on Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber was one of the main reasons the Gophers struggled to get anywhere close to tying the game.
"Patrick is a tremendous young man," Bielema said. "He felt bad about it, but the biggest thing was the answer at the end."
Michael Taylor's end-zone interception turned 58-yard return was wiped out because UW had 12 men on the field, but Taylor had another solid game with five tackles.
Jae McFadden and Culmer St. Jean each registered a pass breakup, two of UW's seven pass breakups on the day. This group was a big reason Minnesota was limited to only 57 rushing yards.
First the bad – Eric Decker, like he has done to many other defenses, recorded a ton of big plays, catching eight passes for 140 yards and a touchdown. After the Badgers overcame the Brown fumble by scoring a Clay touchdown to push the lead back to 10, the Badgers allowed a three-play 80-yard touchdown drive in 47 seconds to keep the Gophers breathing … two things that need to change before heading to Columbus.
Now the good news – sophomore Antonio Fenelus led the Badgers with nine tackles, eight of which were solo stops, both career highs.
"That's amazing," cornerback Aaron Henry said. "Anytime a guy in the secondary has almost double digits in tackles, he's doing a pretty good job."
All three of UW's cornerbacks did a decent job. Devin Smith recovered a fumble on Minnesota's first drive to go along with six tackles, Niles Brinkley registered two pass breakups and Aaron Henry continues to make strides as he shakes the rust off.
"The thing we got going at corner, we have Devin Smith, Antonio Fenelus, Niles Brinkley is playing pretty well and now Aaron Henry," Bielema said. "I've never been in a situation where I felt we had four corners that could play for us on every down."
Safety Jay Valai was instrumental in helping cover Decker, even lining up on the line of scrimmage a few times to give him a good hit to try and knock him off course. And of course, senior captain Chris Maragos forced another turnover, causing a fumble in the first quarter that makes him responsible for four turnovers this season.
UW's kickoff and kickoff return units continue to be poor as the main weak point of this team. Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire had plenty of space to run while averaging 38.5 yards on four kickoff returns, a number that could have been much higher had UM's kickoff return unit not been whistled for two penalties. On the other end of the spectrum, UW's David Gilreath was held to 16.3 yards per return on four returns.
Punter Bradley Nortman, once a Minnesota commit, had a solid day punting the ball, but escaped damage when a partial block on his third attempt rolled forward for 34 yards that put the Gophers at their 5 in the final minutes.
Phillip Welch added a 39-yard field goal, the second straight game he's made all his kicks.