Wisconsin players, current and former, and coaches talk about how big is the yearly rivalry game with Minnesota.
But when push came to shove, during the game itself, the Badgers were conservative (with one exception) while their opponents played aggressive. No surprise, the team which turtled up lost and the one which went for broke ended up keeping Paul Bunyan’s Axe. (Minnesota won 23-16 if for whatever reason you are reading this and have no clue.)
Wisconsin was without running back Braelon Allen, out with various injuries, but didn’t veer from its usual offense. At the half, the Badgers trailed 10-6, failing to get into the red zone.
In the second quarter, Wisconsin was faced with a fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 24 and fourth-and-inches from the Badgers 43 and both times presumptive head coach Jim Leonhard played it safe, electing for a field goal on the former and punting on the latter (the Gophers then drove down for a field goal).
One yard. Not even in the second case. If you can’t trust your offense to pick that up, that’s a problem – and maybe you shouldn’t be running the ball so often to begin with.
The Gophers had a fourth-and-1 – eschewing a short field-goal attempt -- as well and failed, which someone can easily point out to us as “Hey, idiot, see!” But the point is Minnesota and head coach P.J. Fleck went for it, not just on that fourth down but in the game.
The Gophers showed they’d do what it took to win – including putting the game on their redshirt freshman quarterback who hadn’t completed more than nine passes in a game all year. That QB, Athan Kaliakmanis, whose season highs were nine completions and 175 yards entering Saturday, proceeded to light up Wisconsin’s defense to the tune of 19-of-29 passing for 319 yards and two touchdowns.
Wisconsin did show some life – on its lone touchdown drive. The Badgers had a nice naked bootleg with quarterback Graham Mertz hitting fullback Jackson Acker for 28 yards. Then Wisconsin scored on a reverse to Chimere Dike – helped by a nice block from Mertz – from nine yards out.
But then it was back to, well, being Wisconsin. The next three drives were three-and-outs, totaling 15 yards. Then, now trailing, Mertz threw an interception on a third-and-5 with 2:48 left.
Amazingly, the Badgers still had a chance. Minnesota kicker Matthew Trickett missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt. Wisconsin moved the ball to its own 43, but Mertz was hurt on a scramble. In came Chase Wolf, who hadn’t thrown a pass all year, and thanks to an Isaac Guerendo 14-yard run on fourth-and-1, a 16-yard pass to Dike and a defensive pass interference got Wisconsin to the Minnesota 5.
But then a holding penalty, followed by a false start. After an incomplete pass, there were two more false starts, making it second-and-30.
On the final penalty, there was a lot of looking to the sideline, arms in the air, moving around with no clue as to the play.
Plain and simple, Badgers players looked lost. How appropriate.
Here's a recap of Saturday’s game:
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Consider this, in part, a season award. Defensive tackles aren’t supposed to be big statistical producers in the 3-4 defense. They help plug the hole to stuff inside runs and occupy bodies to help linebackers make plays. But Keeanu Benton is different. He had five tackles against Minnesota and four were impactful (in order): A stop of Mohamed Ibrahim (who had his 100-yard rushing game streak snapped at 19 despite 27 carries) for one yard, a sack (with Maema Njongmeta) of Kaliakmanis for eight yards, throwing Ibrahim (with Rodas Johnson) for three yards and another Ibrahim stop, a solo tackle, for a loss of four. His other tackle was an Ibrahim gain of two. On the season, Benton has 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. The former is the most for a Wisconsin defensive tackle since moving to a 3-4 defense in 2013 while the latter was the most for a Badgers defensive lineman since J.J. Watt in 2010. It’s been an impressive season for the senior nose tackle, culminating in an impressive regular-season finale.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT ME
Wisconsin’s defense certainly had some, shall we say, down moments, but Njongmeta was all over the field making plays. He finished with game highs of 12 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss as well as that half-sack mentioned above and a quarterback hurry.
Late in the fourth quarter when Wisconsin got the ball back with 1:48 remaining, Mertz, after an 11-yard completion, ran for two yards but was injured on the play (as was the Gophers defender who made the tackle, Braelen Oliver). Mertz, in obvious pain, came out of the game and Chase Wolf entered – to cheers. Mertz has gone from hotshot recruit who fans couldn’t want to see play to getting cheered when he left a game due to injury (OK, the cheers were in part for Wolf, but it was all part of the situational package). Wolf, incredibly, almost pulled off the comeback before Wisconsin imploded. Quarterback controversy? Well, no (except for a certain section of the fanbase). But the Badgers’ QB situation for 2023 is one big question mark.
Redshirt freshman kicker Nate Van Zelst hadn’t even attempted a field goal from 40 yards and out this season entering Saturday. He proceeded to make field goals from 40 and 43 yards – as well as another from 36. He’s the first Wisconsin kicker to make 3+ field goals with no misses at home since Andrew Endicott vs. Ohio State on Oct. 15, 2016. He became the first freshman since 2000 (as far back as sports-reference data goes) to accomplish it at Camp Randall Stadium.
THEY SAID IT
"They threw the ball significantly better than I anticipated. They had some good schemes vs. our zone coverages and man coverage they were winning, making plays. We have to challenge better on the outside." -- interim head coach Jim Leonhard
"It wasn't the quarterback causing penalties. ... (Chase Wolf) gave us a chance. ... First-and-goal from the 5, can't end the way that it ended. Got really sloppy there. It's unfortunate. It really is. It's frustrating to walk off the field that way after sitting there with first-and-goal at the 5-yard line with plenty of time to take out shots." -- Leonhard on penalty-filled end of game
"I think Chase (Wolf) went in there and did exactly what we needed him to do. He got us to the five. We just can't shoot ourselves in the foot and back us all the way up to the 30-yard line. Five yards is much, much easier than 30, as you all saw." -- offensive lineman Tanor Bortolini
"If you'd told me that before the game, I would have said we were going to win. That's tough. Credit to them. They went out and made plays." -- safety John Torchio on holding Mohamed Ibrahim to 70 yards on 27 carries
"The Minnesota game at the end of the year is always a time to send our seniors off on a good note. When you lose that, it’s devastating. ... It’s a hard loss when we lose to this team. I know for a fact that this team next year will do everything in their power to win that game next year. I’ll be excited to look forward to that because this game hurts for 365 days." -- offensive lineman Tyler Beach
Besides the official naming of Jim Leonhard as head coach, the Badgers will await their bowl fate, which will be announced Sunday, Dec. 4. Wisconsin will need to win that game to avoid its first losing season since 2001. Of course, UW’s 6-6 record is the worst among Big Ten bowl-eligible teams (some 5-7 teams, such as Michigan State, might be needed to fill out bowls). So … Quick Lane Bowl? Guaranteed Rate Bowl? Yay?