One of the most difficult border battle challenges in years ended in much the same way Wisconsin fans have grown accustomed to over the past decade: with a Badgers victory.
It certainly wasn’t of the blowout variety that has transpired recently, but the Badgers will take it all the same. Wisconsin squeezed by Minnesota 20-7 on Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium and kept alive its hopes of qualifying for an at-large BCS bowl berth.
Wisconsin, ranked No. 19 in the latest BCS poll, improved to 9-2 overall and 6-1 in the Big Ten. No. 25 Minnesota had its four-game winning streak snapped and dropped to 8-3, 4-3.
Here are five things we learned about Wisconsin from Saturday’s game:
1. Wisconsin’s defense is menacing
Hey, you probably knew this already, but some of the numbers are worth mentioning again.
Last week, Indiana entered Camp Randall Stadium averaging more than 40 points per game. This week, Minnesota entered TCF Bank Stadium averaging more than 30 points per game. Neither team registered an offensive touchdown against Wisconsin’s defense.
Wisconsin has not allowed an offensive touchdown in six of 11 games now, which is a pretty amazing statistic. The Badgers are allowing 13.3 points per game, which ranks fifth in the country.
Minnesota did not have an especially intimidating passing offense to begin with, but Wisconsin made Gophers quarterback Phillip Nelson look like a junior varsity player. Nelson completed just 7 of 23 passes for 81 yards without a touchdown. The Gophers also averaged just 3.2 yards per rushing attempt.
The Badgers forced and recovered three fumbles, increasing their season total to nine.
2. Joel Stave still needs to clean up some throwing issues
The weather was bitterly cold, and that didn’t exactly lend itself toward airing out the football. Still, Stave misfired on several throws and struggled under pressure early in the game.
Gophers defensive lineman Michael Amaefula hit Stave as he attempted to throw an underneath route across the middle during the second quarter. Stave’s pass was intercepted by Aaron Hill and returned for a 39-yard touchdown, which put Minnesota ahead 7-3. It was Stave’s ninth interception of the season.
Stave does deserve credit for maintaining his confidence and working a perfect drive to start the second half. He completed 6 of 6 passes for 68 yards, which culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Jared Abbrederis. Stave finished his day 16 of 26 for 127 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
3. Chris Borland is the best defensive player in college football
Borland missed nearly two full games earlier this season with an injury, yet he still leads Wisconsin in tackles. And it’s not even close.
He recorded 12 tackles on Saturday and now has 92 for the season. No other player tallied more than four tackles against Minnesota, and the second-most tackles on the team belongs to Michael Caputo, who has 62.
Borland was at his best against the Gophers when he ripped away a fumble from tailback David Cobb in the second half and landed on the ball. It marked the 14th forced fumble of Borland’s career, which tied the Big Ten record. Earlier in the game, Borland recovered a fumble forced by teammate Brendan Kelly.
Gary Andersen has talked all year long about how much he enjoys coaching Borland, and it’s easy to see why because his intelligence level matches his toughness.
Borland once again put himself in the right spot when he handled Cobb 1-on-1 in the open field on a fourth-down pass play with Minnesota inside Wisconsin’s red zone. His tackle gave the Badgers the ball back with less than five minutes remaining to help preserve the victory.
There are dozens of players that have more tackles than Borland this season. But if there is a player more valuable to his respective defense, you’d be hard-pressed to find him.
4. James White is having one heck of a close to his career
We all know White spent the past two seasons being overshadowed by the rise of Montee Ball. At the start of this season, Melvin Gordon then surpassed White on the national radar. But what White is accomplishing of late deserves special mention.
He has now run for more than 100 yards in four consecutive games and five of his last six games. The only game in which he missed triple digits during that span came when he ran for 98 yards with two touchdowns against Illinois.
On Saturday, White got untracked from the start, gaining 49 yards on Wisconsin’s first play from scrimmage. He finished the day with 26 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown. The 26 carries represented a new career high, and he certainly deserved those touches. Gordon, meanwhile, carried 12 times for 69 yards.
Over White’s last four games, he is averaging 152.3 yards rushing per game and has scored six touchdowns on the ground. It’s a shame he isn’t a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award.
5. Wisconsin retained possession of the Axe. Again
This had all the makings to be one of the toughest tests during Wisconsin’s current winning streak, and it certainly matched the hype for much of Saturday’s game. The Gophers looked more physical than the Badgers at times during the first half. But Wisconsin put together a wonderful drive to open the second half, capped by Joel Stave’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Abbrederis, which gave Wisconsin a 20-7 lead.
That was pretty much all the Badgers needed given the way their defense has been rolling. Wisconsin has now won 10 consecutive border battles and reveled in chopping down the Gophers’ goal post afterward.
The Axe will remain in Madison for another year, and another senior class will leave the program having never lost to Minnesota.