Gophers crumble in second half, fall to Badgers again
MADISON, Wis. — A fourth-quarter flourish erased memories of a jittery first half for No. 5 Wisconsin against Minnesota.
The latest installment of the most-played rivalry in major college football ended with a familiar scene: the Badgers triumphantly holding up Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Corey Clement ran for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and a big-play defense pitched a second-half shutout in a 31-17 win over the Golden Gophers to keep the trophy for a 13th straight season.
Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten, No. 6 CFP) turned in a stalwart defensive effort in the second half after getting outplayed early and falling behind by 10 points at halftime.
"In the fourth quarter we just kind of just locked in," cornerback Sojourn Shelton said after the ceremonial chopping down of the goal posts with the axe. "You know what, no more. The rest speaks for itself."
The comeback served as the exclamation point for an already big weekend. The Badgers wrapped up the Big Ten West and a trip to next week’s league title game after Nebraska lost to Iowa on Friday night.
The Badgers will face Penn State in Indianapolis.
"Tomorrow we’ll push the reset button and get ready to play Penn State," coach Paul Chryst said. "This team has done a great job of playing in the moment."
Mitch Leidner threw four interceptions in the second half for Minnesota (8-4, 5-4). The protection around him crumbled as the Badgers mixed up their defensive pressures.
"I’m pretty (angry.) I don’t know how else to describe it," Leidner said. He finished 9 of 26 for 158 yards with a touchdown.
On offense, Wisconsin’s running game finally caught up in the fourth quarter.
Jazz Peavy went 71 yards on a jet sweep down the right sideline to the Minnesota 11. Two plays later, Clement bowled into the end zone from 2 yards to give Wisconsin the lead for good, 24-17, with 6:42 left.
"Certainly the takeaways were huge, and the ability of our offense to finish in the second half," Chryst said.
It was the 126th meeting in a series that dates to 1890.
Minnesota: The rough fourth quarter overshadowed a terrific first half for Minnesota. Leidner threw off the Badgers’ active defense early with keepers around the edges, including his scoring run late in the first half. Leidner also had 46 yards rushing on 16 carries.
But the interceptions shifted momentum.
"Most of the time he was trying to do too much," coach Tracy Claeys said about Leidner’s picks.
A five-win season in the Big Ten, even with a softer schedule, is a confidence builder for the future. But the Gophers still can’t catch up to their biggest measuring stick.
Wisconsin: The Badgers had perhaps their worst first half of the season, with Minnesota following Wisconsin’s blueprint for success. The defense missed key tackles, and the running game couldn’t get going. Left-handed starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook departed after taking a shot to his right shoulder following an incompletion near the sideline late in the second quarter. Hornibrook then fell to the turf, with the back of his helmet slamming hard into the ground.
Chryst had no update on Hornibrook after the game. Backup quarterback Bart Houston played the entire second half and finished 9 of 14 for 123 yards.
With No. 3 Michigan losing in double overtime to No. 2 Ohio State, Wisconsin could move up a spot or two in the next poll.
Shelton, a four-year starter playing in his last home game, had two interceptions. The senior had an entertaining 40-yard, across-the-field return to the Minnesota 19 after his first interception with about 13 minutes left.
Shelton said he guessed that Minnesota would run a comeback route.
"I just took a risk and went for it," Shelton said.
Clement scored his first touchdown of the game three plays later to tie it at 17.
For Minnesota, Drew Wolitarsky had four catches for 76 yards, including a 35-yard reception after tipping the ball to himself and advancing to the Wisconsin 22 late it the second quarter. It set up Leidner’s 3-yard touchdown run with 53 seconds left for a 17-7 halftime lead.
Minnesota: Awaits its bowl destination. The Gophers will play in its fifth consecutive bowl game, tied for longest streak in program history.
Wisconsin: Plays No. 7 Penn State in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.