Badgers take back Axe in snow-filled win over Gophers
MINNEAPOLIS — As soon as Wisconsin’s victory over Minnesota went final, the swarm of white-uniformed Badgers raced toward Paul Bunyan’s Axe for a gleeful reunion with the traveling trophy they lost last year.
They ceremonially chopped at the goal post, while others turned somersaults and made snow angels on the field.
At the end of this breakthrough season by the rival Gophers, the Badgers showed they’re still in charge in the Big Ten West Division.
Jack Coan delivered two momentum-shifting touchdown passes and Jonathan Taylor added three touchdowns to his FBS-leading total, as No. 13 Wisconsin reasserted its recent dominance in the rivalry by beating No. 9 Minnesota 38-17 on Saturday to advance to the Big Ten championship game.
“The worst feeling in the world was losing on our own field and having them take it,” said Badgers linebacker Chris Orr, who watched Gophers win 37-15 last year to end a 14-game losing streak in the series. “The best feeling in the world is beating them on their home field on senior day and taking it from them.”
Quintez Cephus caught five passes for 114 yards, including a 47-yarder for a score midway through the third quarter that gave Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2, No. 12 CFP) a 17-7 lead. Coan connected with Taylor for a 28-yard touchdown strike late in the second quarter that gave the Badgers the lead after a slow start, sending them on their way to a rematch with unbeaten and second-ranked Ohio State.
Taylor, the Heisman Trophy contender who had 200-plus rushing yards in each of his last three games, had a quiet 76 yards on 18 carries. Badgers coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph called a shrewd game, though, with well-timed reverses and screen passes to put the Gophers on their heels after their first four possessions went nowhere. They caught Minnesota defensive end Carter Coughlin in coverage on the touchdown throw to Taylor after a safety blitz. When the safety help was slow after a late change of the call, Cephus exploited a matchup with linebacker Thomas Barber for his score.
“A lot of the plays were extremely well-drawn up. We just have to learn how to combat it better,” said Gophers defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere, one of six senior starters on the defense.
Coan went 15 for 22 for 280 yards, a career high for a Big Ten game.
“He was able to throw dimes down the field in these conditions,” Taylor said. “He has something special.”
Tanner Morgan passed for 296 yards and two touchdowns for the Gophers (10-2, 7-2). He had an interception and a lost fumble that turned into 10 points for the Badgers, who scored touchdowns on each of their first four drives in the second half. Two of them covered 90-plus yards.
“That’s all on me. I’ve just got to be better in the pocket and moving around,” said Morgan, who set the Minnesota season record with 2,975 passing yards.
The Gophers delivered the first blow on their second play of the game, when Bateman badly beat freshman cornerback Semar Melvin for a 51-yard score on a perfect strike from Morgan. With Minnesota boasting the top two receivers in the Big Ten in Bateman and Tyler Johnson, the Badgers had their hands full.
They responded with five sacks, giving them the fourth-most in the FBS (44) this season, harassing Morgan into plenty of off-balanced and hastened throws. Cornerback Caesar Williams, elevated to the starting lineup for the injured Rachad Wildgoose, had the interception when Morgan’s hurried pass sailed over Johnson in the second quarter, and in the fourth quarter he broke up back-to-back passes to Johnson in the end zone on third and fourth down with the Badgers leading 24-10.
The Gophers lost mammoth right tackle Daniel Faalele to a leg injury in the second quarter, which didn’t help their cause.
This was the only the sixth time in the history of the most-played series in major college football that both teams were ranked in The Associated Press poll, the first since 2014 when Wisconsin also denied Minnesota a spot in the conference title game by winning the regular-season finale. Wisconsin could take Minnesota’s place in the top 10 on Sunday.
Wisconsin: The Badgers might be wincing next month about what that one-point loss to Illinois on Oct. 19 might have cost them, though they have a long-shot hope of their first berth in the College Football Playoff if there’s a bunch of upsets on conference championship weekend. Either way, their recovery was a testament to Chryst and his staff, and the game plan for the Gophers was superb.
“There were a number of things that maybe we hadn’t done,” Chryst said. “It’s not like we put them all in this week, but I think the situations were right for it.”
Minnesota: The dream season took a painful hit with losses to border-state rivals Iowa and Wisconsin over the final three weeks, after starting Fleck’s third year at 9-0. Though the Badgers took home the traveling trophy for the 22nd time in the last 25 seasons, the Gophers had no trouble expressing confidence in their progress.
“I know we didn’t tonight, but that doesn’t mean we won’t forever,” Fleck said.
Wisconsin: Heads to Indianapolis for the sixth time in nine years since the conference title game was created. The Badgers lost 38-7 to Ohio State on Oct. 26.
Minnesota: Awaits the Dec. 8 announcement of the bowl assignments. The Rose Bowl remains a possibility, but the Badgers might grab that one and relegate the Gophers to either the Citrus Bowl or the Outback Bowl, both of which are also on Jan. 1.