Gophers Hand Axe Back to the Badgers
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Jack Coan delivered two momentum-shifting touchdown passes in the snow for No. 13 Wisconsin, Jonathan Taylor added three touchdowns to his FBS-leading total and the Badgers forcefully repossessed Paul Bunyan’s Axe by beating No. 9 Minnesota 38-17 on Saturday to win the Big Ten West Division.
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 to the Big Ten championship game for a rematch with second-ranked Ohio State.
Tanner Morgan passed for 296 yards and two touchdowns for the Gophers (10-2, 7-2). They watched their dream season take a painful hit from their oldest rival after ending a 14-game losing streak to the Badgers a year ago with a 37-15 victory at Wisconsin.
Minnesota was seeking to go undefeated at home for the first time since 1954, but the Badgers reasserted their recent dominance by taking home the traveling trophy for the 22nd time in the last 25 seasons. They took a 61-60-8 series lead.
Morgan had two turnovers that led to 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. Taylor, the Heisman Trophy contender who had 200-plus rushing yards in each of his last three games, gained only 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. Minnesota had defensive end Carter Coughlin in coverage on the touchdown throw to Taylor after a safety blitz, and Cephus had a favorable matchup with linebacker Thomas Barber on his backbreaking score.
Coan went 15 for 22 for 280 yards, the most of his career in a Big Ten game.
The Gophers delivered the first blow on their second play of the game, when Bateman used a stop-and-go route to badly beat freshman cornerback Semar Melvin for a 51-yard score on a perfect strike from Morgan for a 7-0 lead. With starting cornerback Rachad Wildgoose out with a foot injury and Minnesota boasting the top two receivers in the Big Ten in Bateman and Tyler Johnson, the Badgers had their hands full in the secondary.
They counteracted naturally with a pass rush that’s one of the nation’s best, with the fifth-most sacks in the FBS, harassing Morgan into plenty of off-balanced and hastened throws and hitting him hard when they came close. Caesar Williams, elevated to the starting lineup with Wildgoose’s absence, stepped up repeatedly against the second-highest scoring team in the conference.
Williams picked off Morgan’s pass when a pressured throw sailed over Johnson in the second quarter, and early 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. His interception came immediately after Wisconsin’s 14th lost fumble of the season, the second-most in the FBS.
The Gophers lost mammoth right tackle Daniel Faalele to a leg injury in the second quarter, which sure didn’t help their cause against a Badgers defense that was eager to rebound from that humbling performance against Minnesota last season.
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 when poll is released Sunday. The Badgers, despite their two defeats, 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.
Wisconsin: The Badgers might be wincing next month about what that one-point loss to Illinois on Oct. 19 might have cost them, but their recovery over the final four games was another testament to Chryst and his staff. Coan proved that the Badgers can still move the ball when they need to when Taylor is being bottled up.
Minnesota: The Gophers were humbled a bit by one of their border-state rivals for the second time in the last three weeks, taking some of the shine off this breakthrough in coach P.J. Fleck’s third season.
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.