MADISON, Wisc. — Entering the third quarter against No. 20 Wisconsin on Saturday, the momentum was all on the Minnesota sideline.
The Gophers had scored the final nine points of the half, held the Badgers to just 47 yards and no points in the second quarter and trailed by only five after falling behind 14-0 early.
But Wisconsin started with the ball in the second half, and although two Gophers’ penalties helped the Badgers score on that drive, what happened the rest of the half — touchdowns on four of five offensive drives — was all to Wisconsin’s credit.
And with the ensuing 41-23 win, Paul Bunyan’s Axe will stay in Madison for the seventh year in a row.
“You think back on the past couple years and how close we were,” quarterback Adam Weber said. “And coming in at halftime being down by five, really having some momentum carrying it into the second half and just not being able to finish it in the second half — it hurts. This will sting for the rest of my life, but it’s a pill you have to swallow.”
The Badgers (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) ran at will for most of the game. Junior John Clay rushed 21 times for 111 yards and three touchdowns, and freshman James White added 118 yards and two scores on 19 carries.
“They’re good players,” Gophers head coach Tim Brewster said of the running backs. “That’s certainly not a recipe for success for your defense when you’ve got two guys rushing for over 100 yards in a game.”
Wisconsin has had a 100-yard rusher in 10 of the past 11 games against Minnesota (1-5, 0-2 Big Ten). The Badgers have also had a running back score at least two touchdowns in nine of the past 10 meetings.
“We knew what they’re doing. They know what they’re doing. They’re good at what they do, though,” senior safety Kyle Theret said about the Wisconsin running game. “In order for you to stop them, everybody has to do their job.”
Saturday’s game wasn’t the first time Brewster pointed at tackling as a major reason for losing. The issue was under a microscope, though, against running backs of White’s and Clay’s caliber, and Theret said small mistakes led to big runs. White had two runs go for 24 yards, and the Badgers had seven double-digit rushing gains.
Another season-long struggle, stopping opponents on third down, cropped up Saturday. The Badgers moved the chains on seven of nine third downs, including a pair of crucial conversions to start the second half.
On the first, quarterback Scott Tolzien hit tight end Lance Kendricks over the middle for a 10-yard gain. As defenders brought Kendricks down, linebacker Aaron Hill appeared to strip the ball away, and the Gophers flopped on what looked like a momentum-shifting fumble.
But officials ruled that Kendricks had stopped making forward progress and was down. Brewster didn’t see it that way.
“I’m not going to comment on it, but there’s a fumble there,” Brewster said. “There’s a fumble there that we recovered on that drive, and that’s really disappointing.”
Wisconsin finished the 11-play drive, — which included another third-down conversion thanks to a defensive holding penalty on Troy Stoudermire — with a touchdown to take a 21-9 lead. They forced a Minnesota four-and-out and marched down the field to score again. The two scoring drives accounted for 10:57 of the 15-minute third quarter and left Minnesota with little time to close a 28-9 gap.
“You can kind of feel it slipping a little bit, but that’s when you feel that fire behind you that, on offense, we have to do something,” Weber said. “We can’t sit on our heels here. We have to be very aggressive.”
The Gophers didn’t lie down, and they scored twice more on highlight-reel touchdown catches by Da’Jon McKnight, but the Badgers still outscored Minnesota 27-14 in the second half.
“It’s tough when you prepare all week and you wait all year for this game,” Theret said. “Then it comes, and you have this outcome.”