Saturday, November 23, 2013

Elsewhere in the B1G: Au Revoir, Gopher

Photo credit: Michael Hicks

No. 25 Minnesota 7, No. 19 Wisconsin 20

When James White reeled off a 49-yard run on Wisconsin's first play of the game, Gophers fans had to be thinking one thing: Here we go again.

The No. 25 Minnesota Gophers met its cross-divisional rival, No. 19 Wisconsin, looking to keep Paul Bunyan's Axe for the first time since 2003. A week after James White ran for a 93-yard score on Wisconsin's first play against Indiana, it seemed like the Badgers were poised to run all over yet another Big Ten foe.

The Gophers proved their mettle after that initial burst from White, however, holding the Badgers to a field goal and then forcing them to go punt on their next two drives. Meanwhile, the Minnesota offense struggled to get going; luckily for them, the defense provided the first touchdown score of the afternoon for either team.

Faced with a 3rd & 6 from UW's 36, QB Joel Stave tossed an interception to Aaron Hill, who took it to the house for six. For a heavy underdog, that play was exactly what the Gophers needed to make it to halftime with life.

With that said, the Gophers failed to stay on the positive side of the turnover ledger in the first half. The Gophers lost a fumble on the first play of the second quarter, then another on a promising drive into UW territory. Following the latter turnover, the Badgers drove down to the Minnesota 1-yard line, where White punched it in to regain the lead.

Nelson later committed an intentional ground penalty, ultimately leading to a Wisconsin drive starting at the Minnesota 49. Once again, the Minnesota defense flexed its muscles, holding the Badger offense to a field goal after it had gotten all the way down to the Gopher 2-yard line.

Heading into the half down 13-7, the Gophers had to be mostly pleased with the first 30 minutes of football in TCF Bank Stadium. Whether the Gophers could ride those good feelings to an upset victory depended on the offense's ability to grind out long drives, just like they've done throughout their 4-game winning streak.

UW's opening drive of the second half would go a long way toward setting the tone for the rest of the game. For Joel Stave, that meant looking to his favorite target, Jared Abbrederis, who managed just one reception in the first half, in addition to a drop that would have been a sure touchdown.

Stave hit Abbrederis for gains of five, 21 and 21 yards. On 3rd & 9 from the Minnesota 15, Stave once again looked to Abbrederis in the end zone, drawing a pass interference penalty. Stave again looked to him in the end zone on the next play, this time connecting for six to give the Badgers a 20-7 lead.

The UW drive ate up over eight minutes of clock in 12 plays, a crushing blow to the Gophers' upset bid. It didn't end there, however.

On the first play of Minnesota's next drive, Chris Borland forced and recovered a fumble, tying the FBS record for career forced fumbles (14). No player defines the 2013 Badgers better than Borland: talented yet somehow always coasting under the national radar.

Fortunately for the Gophers, they held the Badgers to a field goal attempt, which has been a weakness for an otherwise excellent Badgers squad. Jack Russell missed wide left, allowing the Gophers to breathe for a moment, still down 20-7.

Minnesota appeared to have a chance to swing things back in its favor when Abbrederis fumbled near the end of a long punt return; however, the Badgers recovered, yet another blow in quick succession to Minnesota's dwindling hopes.

The Badgers then went on to execute --rather, not execute-- the strangest fake field goal attempt I've seen, possibly ever, giving the Gophers the ball at the UM 33. With less than 13 minutes remaining, the Gophers needed a score like every fan in TCF Bank needed a cup of hot chocolate.

On 4th & 6 from the UW 32, Nelson badly overshot a wide open Maxx Williams in the middle of the field, a crucial misfire for a Gophers team running short on time. Minnesota thus continued to balance itself on the precipice of Mount Defeat; they were just one or two big Gordon or White runs away from an unpleasant plunge.

In desperation mode, the Gophers started taking their shots deep, with mixed success. Williams couldn't quite reel in a catch down the left sideline while seemingly being interfered with, but hauled one in on the next play (while also drawing a penalty). Like the Stave-Abbrederis connection, Nelson was locked on Williams; he once again looked to him on the next play, yielding yet another pass interference penalty to bring the Gophers to the UW 18.

But, on 4th & 10, the Gophers couldn't convert, with Williams for whatever reason standing on the sideline.

The Badgers then proceeded to grind out the remaining four minutes and change of clock, as they are wont to do. For all the talk about the Badgers' excellent ground game, the defense has quietly proven itself to be one of the best in the country and easily second best in the Big Ten behind Michigan State. Chris Borland had another big day, keeping the Gophers' ground game in check while making plays all over the field.

When all was said and done, the UW defense held Minnesota to just 185 yards of offense on 3.6 yards per pass. For the third straight conference game, the UW defense did not allow a touchdown.

Perhaps most importantly for UW partisans, Paul Bunyan's Axe remains with the Badgers in Madison for the 10th straight season.

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