Badgers report card: Wisconsin chugs on against improved Gophers

In the end, Minnesota’s football team caught a rare glimpse of Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday — but only from a distance, while Wisconsin was busy parading it around TCF Bank Stadium after another victory.

BCS No. 19 Wisconsin handled No. 25 Minnesota 20-7 to capture its 10th consecutive border battle. And the rivalry proved to be as heated as ever, particularly after the game when Wisconsin players intended to chop down Minnesota’s goal post. Instead, the Gophers protected the goal post, which led to shoving and screaming between the two sides.

Rivalries are great. And for Wisconsin, it’s been especially great for the last decade.

Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1 in Big Ten play) plays host to Penn State on Saturday during the regular season finale. But let’s revisit the Badgers’ victory one more time and hand out grades for the team’s performance in Game 11 against Minnesota:

Passing offense: C-plus

Hey, conditions for throwing were miserable on Saturday. And if you don’t believe it, just look at Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson’s numbers from the game. Still, Badgers quarterback Joel Stave encountered plenty of issues himself.

Maybe the cold played tricks on the football, but Stave misfired on several throws to open receivers. During the second quarter, Gophers defensive lineman MichaelAmaefula hit Stave as he attempted to throw an underneath route across the middle. 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 finished his day 16-of-26 for 127 yards with one touchdown and one interception, so he fought back well enough to allow Wisconsin to pull ahead and the defense to take over. He worked a perfect drive to start the second half, completing 6 of 6 passes for 68 yards, which culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Jared Abbrederis.

Rushing offense: B-plus

Take away James White’s 49-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, and Wisconsin averaged only 3.36 yards per carry on Saturday. For a team that entered the day averaging more than seven yards per rush, that’s a pretty stunning result.

Of course, this turned into a classic Big Ten football game, and when Wisconsin needed to establish the run game in key moments, it did. The Badgers certainly deserve credit there.

White finished his day with a career-high 26 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown. Melvin Gordon carried 12 times for 69 yards, and the duo did just enough to escape Minneapolis with the victory.

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 heck of a way to end his senior year.

Passing defense: A-plus

When it’s all said and done, this may go down as one of the greatest defenses in the history of Wisconsin football. During an area in which we’re seeing the proliferation of spread offenses and scoring reaching uncharted heights, the Badgers are shutting nearly every team down in its way.

Consider that Indiana was averaging more than 40 points per game and Minnesota more than 30 points when Wisconsin played both teams over the past two weeks. Neither team scored an offensive touchdown. In fact, the Badgers have not allowed an offensive touchdown in six of 11 games this season.

Nelson completed just 7-of-23 passes for 83 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.That’s about as dominant on defense as it gets. Badgers safety Nate Hammon forced a fumble after Nelson completed a 9-yard pass to Maxx Williams, which was recovered by linebacker Derek Landisch. Later in the game, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly sacked Nelson and forced a fumble, which was recovered by linebacker Chris Borland.

Wisconsin now ranks ninth in the country in passing defense (179.4 yards per game). The Badgers won’t crack the top 10 in program history for passing yards allowed per game, but all of those marks were set between 1946 and 1977. This is a different era, and the Badgers are one of the best.

Rushing defense: A-plus

Minnesota is a team that prides itself on wearing down opponents with its running game — a style that is awfully similar to what Wisconsin likes to do. But the Gophers could get no push at the line of scrimmage and were held in check for the entire game. Minnesota carried the ball 32 times for 102 yards — a 3.2 yards-per-carry average.

The play that epitomized the Badgers’ dominance came with Wisconsin leading 20-7 in the third quarter. Badgers linebacker Chris Borland tackled running back David Cobb in the backfield, ripped away the ball and landed on it, marking the 14th forced fumble of Borland’s career.

This season, Wisconsin ranks No. 7 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (99.1). If that mark holds, it will go down as the fourth-best run defense in the history of Wisconsin football. The only teams ranked ahead of this UW unit are Badgers teams from 1951 (66.8 yards per game), 2009 (88.2) and 1998 (92.2). No other Wisconsin team has held opponents below 100 yards rushing per game for an entire season.

Special teams: B-minus

Wisconsin loses an entire letter grade here for that ridiculous fake 43-yard field goal attempt during the fourth quarter. The Badgers drove to the Gophers’ 26-yard line when punter Drew Meyer (who is also the team’s field goal holder) lined up behind center on fourth-and-2. The ball was snapped his way, and he threw a lateral pass to tight end Sam Arneson. There were five Badgers players standing in front of Arneson to block, but none of the Gophers were fooled.

Arneson lost seven yards on the play, and Minnesota took over on downs at Wisconsin’s 32. Though it didn’t ultimately cost the Badgers, it was one of the more curious decisions we’ve seen from head coach Gary Andersen all season.

Beyond that, there wasn’t a ton for Wisconsin fans to complain about. Kicker Jack Russell did miss a 38-yard field goal try in the third quarter, but he also made his first two attempts from 31 and 20 yards. The miss snapped Russell’s streak of seven consecutive made field goal attempts.

Meyer did his job — outside of that fake field-goal attempt — and punted five times for an average of 33 yards. He usually only has half the field to work with on his punts, but he did pin Minnesota inside the 20 twice.

Lastly, Abbrederis handled punt returns instead of Kenzel Doe, whose propensity to fumble has caused concern. Abbrederis didn’t muff a single punt, and he even returned one for 35 yards.

Overall: B-plus

Wisconsin shoots into the B-plus category here primarily on the strength of its defense, which completely owned Minnesota. The passing game still needs work, and the running game did just enough on Saturday. But that defense is something special to watch.

The conditions made it much more difficult to score points in bunches, and let’s not forget this was a much better Minnesota team than the one Wisconsin has seen in recent years. No matter. Wisconsin chugs on and has one more game against Penn State to argue its case for a BCS at-large bowl berth.

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