MINNEAPOLIS — Chris Borland carried Sojourn Shelton on his shoulders, allowing the freshman cornerback to tote a token of the past four hours’ — and decade’s — significance for the Wisconsin football program.
It wasn’t Paul Bunyan’s Axe; his teammates carried the infamous utensil toward TCF Bank Stadium’s east end zone, where the entire Minnesota football team stood waiting in front of the goalpost the Badgers sought to symbolically fell. While the longtime border rivals engaged in a mass altercation that included a few shoves from both sides, Borland and Shelton paraded toward Wisconsin’s bench and celebrated with the few shivering, red-clad fans that remained.
“10 straight.” In scribbled, black-marker ink on a large white board. Borland’s makeshift memento pointed not toward mere retention, but to sustained domination.
With the senior linebacker helming an all-inclusive shutdown of Wisconsin’s opportunistic nemesis, the Badgers’ 20-7 victory Saturday capped the longest win streak for either side in major college football’s most-played series. Wisconsin held the Gophers — identical 8-2 record and all — to 185 yards of offense and kept them off the scoreboard, save for an early defensive touchdown.
“We knew that we’d won nine straight, and 10’s kind of a solid number there,” said Borland, who had 12 total tackles and played a part in two of Wisconsin’s season-high three forced turnovers. “It’s a good decade for us.”
In a vintage Big Ten clash of downhill teams fighting an 18-degree game-time temperature — the fourth-coldest in Wisconsin history — the Badgers (9-2) faced one of their stiffer tests in the 123rd Battle for the Axe. Minnesota (8-3) rode a wave of confidence and a four-game win streak into its opportunity to down No. 16 Wisconsin for the first time since 2003.
A Gophers defense ranked 48th nationally in total defense held FBS’ No. 6 ground attack to 197 yards — second this season only to Ohio State, which eliminated the Badgers from Big Ten title-game contention by crushing Indiana on Saturday. Wisconsin’s James White churned his way to 125 yards on 26 carries including a 49-yard scamper on the his team’s first play from scrimmage.
“They had pretty much everybody in the box, so it’s pretty tough to run on them,” said White, whose 1-yard touchdown rumble gave Wisconsin the lead for good with 3:14 left in the second quarter.
Even during the postgame festivities, the Badgers met resistance.
Minnesota sang the school’s fight song before remnants of a 53,090-strong crowd, the largest in the stadium’s five-year history. By the time the Gophers finished, most of Wisconsin’s players were moving toward them, the Axe in tow after taking a few whacks at the base of the west uprights.
The series’ tradition calls for a mock chopping-down of both goal posts. Minnesota had other ideas.
“We were waiting for them to finish singing their school song,” said Badgers nose guard Beau Allen, who hails from west-Minneapolis suburb Minnetonka.
But the Gophers didn’t budge, and soon both sides were in each other’s faces. Stadium security stepped in and made sure no punches were thrown, and Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen did his best to rush in and diffuse the melee.
Andersen said players from both teams handled the situation admirably. But a police offer, he said, pushed him and stuck a finger in his face as he tried to get his players away from Minnesota’s.
“The kids, in my opinion, were not out of control,” Andersen said. “Do we want them down there? Do we want them in those situations? No, we don’t want them to get into those situations, but you’re supposed to carry yourself like an adult in those scenarios, and I don’t need somebody pointing a finger in my face when supposedly it’s their job to take protect the kids and be the security for the stadium, I suppose. It makes me mad.”
“It’s understandable,” Allen said of Minnesota’s postgame stand. “It’s an emotional game. We’re at their home turf, wanting to chop down the goalpost, so you can really see where that’s coming from. I’m sure we’d feel the same way.”
Said Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson, whom Wisconsin held to 7-for-23 passing and 83 yards: “It’s a pride thing.”
The Badgers defense, though, had the better afternoon defending their own goal.
Harassing Nelson and bottling up burgeoning running back David Cobb (73 yards on 17 carries), Wisconsin kept the Gophers’ ball-control offense from sustaining drives like it had in previous conference victories over Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. Six of 11 Minnesota drives — excluding a kneel-down to end the first half — were comprised of three plays or less, and the Badgers finished with a 35:11-24:49 time-of-possession edge.
Inside linebacker Derek Landisch recovered a Maxx Williams fumble punched free by safety Nate Hammon on the first play of the second quarter. Later in the period, outside backer Brendan Kelly stripped Nelson from behind, and Borland pounced on the ball to set up White’s go-ahead score.
After quarterback Joel Stave (16-for-26, 127 yards) found Jared Abbrederis in the back of the end zone to conclude a 12-play, 83-yard drive to open the third, Borland ripped the ball loose from Cobb and scooped it up himself.
It was the magic third turnover in a single game Wisconsin’s revamped 3-4 defense had coveted all season but never attained, Borland said.
“I don’t know what to put it on,” said Borland, who tied a Big Ten record with the 14th forced fumble of his career. “We practice it, and we go for it in games; it just hasn’t happened as much as we’d like, but maybe today is a marker for what’s gonna happen these next two games.”
Despite its Badger-exposed limitations, Minnesota retained life in the fourth quarter. It marched to Wisconsin’s 31-yard line before Nelson overthrew a wide-open Williams on fourth down with 11:23 to go. The Gophers went 53 yards on 11 plays on their final possession — by far their most efficient one, thanks in part to a pair of pass interference calls — but Borland swallowed up Cobb in the right flat for a 5-yard gain on fourth-and-10 from the Badgers’ 18 at the 4:52 mark.
Safety Tanner McEvoy had laid out to knock away a first-down pass in the end zone.
That helped crown another signature performance for a defense Andersen admitted he wasn’t sure about coming into the year. After switching from a four- to a three-man front, Wisconsin now has gone 16 quarters without yielding a touchdown and kept its opponent out of the end zone in six of 10 games.
Minnesota linebacker Aaron Hill’s 39-yard interception return early in the second accounted for the Gophers’ only points Saturday.
“I don’t know how good I thought we were gonna be,” Andersen said of his stoppers, which came in ranked fifth nationally in scoring defense at 14 points per game. “If you look at that crew, it’s pretty amazing.”
And while the Badgers saw their chances at a fourth straight conference title dashed by Ohio State’s win, they hopped on a plane back to Madison oozing with enthusiasm for a possible at-large BCS bowl bid.
The Axe, once again, went with them.
“It’s the longest-standing rivalry in the nation, so I don’t know if it can go up any (notches),” said Allen, one of three Minnesota natives who served as captains Saturday, “but maybe it did. We had a great game, a Big Ten game, really — cold weather, late in the season. You’ve got to love it.”
“(Minnesota) saw a glimpse of what (the Axe) looked like today,” said Kelly, a sixth-year senior who has seen Wisconsin go 6-0 against his home state’s school, “but I think it’s great kind of getting out there, doing our game plan, winning that Axe and celebrating as a team after the game.”