With the chance to play a meaningful game in December, the Wisconsin Badgers instead reverted to their slipshod ways of September.
Wisconsin’s seven-game winning streak came to an end with a loud thud, falling 23-13 at Minnesota to not only surrender Paul Bunyan’s Axe to the Gophers but also come up short in winning the Big Ten West, thus losing out on playing in the Big Ten championship, a goal which seemed like folly after UW opened the season losing three of four games.
But the Badgers put themselves in position to get to Indianapolis only to see it come to a crashing halt. The offense in particular looked nothing like the recent well-oiled machine but rather the inept unit of that early season start.
Give credit to Minnesota. The Gophers outplayed – and outcoached – Wisconsin in every facet.
The Badgers were made one-dimensional with star freshman running back Braelon Allen, clearly not 100%, bottled up all game. He gained just 47 yards on 17 carries, with 13 of those totes going for three yards or less. Allen’s longest run was 14 yards.
Wisconsin is used to closing out games on the ground. But against the Gophers, the Badgers ran the ball only three times in the fourth quarter – and all were scrambles by quarterback Graham Mertz – as they tried to rally from deficits of seven and then 10 points.
It didn’t work. Mertz finished 21-of-38 passing for 171 yards with an interception. He badly missed on a couple of important throws to Chimere Dike and Danny Davis, either the quarterback or receiver on the wrong page as the ball landed harmlessly yards away from the receiver.
Minnesota didn’t dominate Wisconsin’s defense, although the 274 yards gained were the fourth most against the Badgers this season and the 5.2 yards per play third highest. The Gophers had five pass plays of longer than 25 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown to Chris Autman-Bell which put Minnesota up for good.
Wisconsin committed eight penalties for 78 yards – both second most on the season – and Collin Larsh’s fourth-quarter 48-yard field goal attempt went off the crossbar, making a loud thump, and back onto the field of play, no good.
The Gophers took over, used some clock and kicked a field goal to make it a 10-point game.
With just over six minutes remaining, down two scores and the offense performing like it did in early season losses to Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan – the only touchdown was tallied by the defense on a Scott Nelson pick-six -- the game was all over except for the celebration.
Much like that missed Larsh attempt, this Wisconsin game was a clunker – something the Badgers appeared to have put past them.
Here's a recap of Saturday’s game:
PLAYER OF THE GAME
In a 3-4 defense, defensive linemen, especially nose tackles, don’t get a lot of love – or at least not as much credit as they usually deserve. Keeanu Benton has had a standout season. Saturday, he had his best statistical game of the season. Benton had a season- and career-high six tackles (his previous best was three). The junior also recorded two sacks giving him 2.5 on the season. His previous season high was 2.0 back in 2019. Benton’s third-quarter sack of Gophers QB Tanner Morgan looked like it might be the play of the game … but, well, it didn’t quite work out that way as we’ll note below.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT ME
Ho-hum, another big day from linebacker Leo Chenal: 14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one-half sack and a quarterback hurry. It’s his fifth game with double-digit tackles and third in a row. It just wasn’t enough this time.
There were a few choices here. Justin Walley stealing a ball from Kendric Pryor for an interception at the Wisconsin 28, leading to a Minnesota touchdown. The punt team coming on the field on fourth-and-1 down 10 with 4:30 left, then the Badgers getting called for a false start, Paul Chryst sending the offense back out and then calling a timeout. But the play which stands out here came after that Benton sack, which put Minnesota in a third-and-10 from its own 38-yard line in a 10-all game. On the next play, Morgan hit Dylan Wright, who made a nice catch near the sideline for a 27-yard gain. That failure on third down came to haunt the Badgers as three plays later Autman-Bell had his TD and Wisconsin trailed for good.
Wisconsin ran the ball just 22 times – in the entire game. Think about the Badgers’ offensive strategy and how crazy low that number is. As mentioned above, QB Graham Mertz had the only Badgers carries in the fourth quarter (three of them, all on scrambles). The last rush by a running back came with just under two minutes remaining in the third quarter. Anyway, that’s the fewest carries in a game for Wisconsin since Sept. 5, 2015 against Alabama (21 in 35-17 loss) in what was Paul Chryst’s first game as Badgers head coach. Since 2000, those are the only games in which UW had 22 or fewer carries. In that span, Wisconsin has 12 games (including Saturday) in which it had fewer than 30 carries. The Badgers won one of those -- the 2007 Capital One Bowl vs. Arkansas.
THEY SAID IT
"We knew coming in it was a good defense. We weren’t able to consistently run the ball. And we had some in the passing game but nothing consistent. We couldn’t finish. Two red-zone opportunities and got field goals instead of touchdowns. Against a good team that is going to make it harder." -- head coach Paul Chryst
"Never should’ve even been thinking to punt. I didn’t handle it well, flat out." -- Chryst on the fourth-and-1 play late in the game
"Nobody wants to be the team that loses the Axe, so it’s truly disappointing. -- linebacker Noah Burks
"This is honestly the worst feeling in the world. All the work past players have put into even up the (all-time series against Minnesota) and put us in the lead, it just feels like a disgrace to the program for us to lose the Axe." -- cornerback Caesar Williams
"It all comes down to finishing drives, you can’t win with field goals." -- quarterback Graham Mertz
"I just feel Minnesota tried to outphysical me. ... Knowing that, I could just go. I don't think there's too many people who can outphysical me." -- defensive tackle Keeanu Benton
Wisconsin will finish up its 2021 season with a bowl game. The chances of this game being played in 2022 took a big hit with Saturday’s loss. Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State will play Jan. 1; if the Hawkeyes beat the Wolverines and no Big Ten team makes the college football playoff, that will knock the Badgers down a slot. Wisconsin (8-4) will be competing for the same bowls with Minnesota (8-4), Purdue (8-4) and Penn State (7-5). Among the bowls Big Ten teams are slotted for are the Citrus and Outback, both Jan. 1 games, Las Vegas (Dec. 30), Music City (Dec. 30), Pinstripe (Dec. 29), Guaranteed Rate (Dec. 28) and Quick Lane (Dec. 27). Perhaps the Badgers have an outside chance at the Outback, but one of the Dec. 30 games feels more likely.