Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill has stressed making progress and improvements all year, and through the first 10 weeks of the season, the Gophers had done that.
Then, Wisconsin came to town, and Minnesota reverted back to early-season form.
The Badgers toppled the Gophers 42-13 for their eighth consecutive win over Minnesota and will retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
“You’ve got to play all three phases of the game, and it’s a team game. We didn’t play all three phases,” Kill said. “We just didn’t play very well today.”
Wisconsin’s offense was dominant in outgaining Minnesota 461 yards to 156, seemingly moving the ball at will most of the game.
Badgers running back Montee Ball had 23 carries for 166 of Wisconsin’s 283 rushing yards and scored his 25th, 26th and 27th touchdowns of this season.
“You’ve got to just go to your assigned gap and if [Ball is] there you’ve got to just make that play,” Minnesota linebacker Gary Tinsley said. “From him kind of being a short guy, he runs pretty hard. It was kind of challenging getting to him.”
Ball’s 27 scores lead the nation, and the mark sets a new Big Ten single-season record.
“[Ball is] a consistent guy. ... He’s just very consistent in what he does,” Badgers head coach Brett Bielema said. “It’s fun to watch him have the success on Saturday, and these personal records mean nothing to him, but they’re pretty nice things to have in his hip pocket.”
Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson operated the offense with near-perfect precision.
The nation’s leader in passing efficiency threw for 178 yards and four touchdowns. He completed his first 16 pass attempts and his lone incompletion was a dropped pass on his final pass attempt of the night. It came early in the second half, but Wisconsin didn’t need to throw after that point.
Wisconsin used long, methodical drives to wear out Minnesota’s defense, and the Badgers defense stymied the Gophers for much of the afternoon. Minnesota’s special teams units scored both of its touchdowns.
Quarterback MarQueis Gray, who became a father to twin boys MarShawn and MarZell late Friday night, was 6-for-14 for a season-low 51 yards and an interception.
He was hampered by a sore back that he injured last week against Michigan State. Wisconsin slowed him as a runner, too. He carried the ball 19 times for 68 yards.
Kill said Gray had “a lot on his plate,” between playing less than 24 hours after the birth of his children and playing hurt.
After the game, Gray said the back injury that limited him in practice all week wasn’t serious enough to stop him from playing.
“I’m not going to let it get me down on the sideline. I want to be here for my team,” he said. “This is my team, and I wanted to be there for them.”
His presence didn’t affect the outcome of the game a whole lot. The Badgers raced out to a 21-0 lead before Gophers kicker Jordan Wettstein scored from five yards out on a fake field goal.
Minnesota had a shot to score again a few minutes before halftime, but a Gray pass to wide receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts was badly underthrown and intercepted by safety Antonio Fenelus.
Wilson led Wisconsin on a 78-yard drive and capped it with a 17-yard touchdown pass to receiver Nick Toon, and the Badgers took a 28-6 lead into halftime. Toon had eight catches for 100 yards and two scores on the day.
Gophers running back Duane Bennett returned the second half’s opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 28-13 and invigorated the crowd and sideline in the process.
“We had to forget about what happened then and try to create a spark as soon as possible,” Bennett said. “It’s something that we preach every day in practice.”
The Badgers soon responded with a drive that resulted in a Wilson touchdown toss to tight end Jacob Pederson. Ball tacked on his record-breaking touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“I think we all have an understanding that we played a pretty good football team today,” Kill said. “You’ll do some good things and then all of a sudden things don’t go right and you’ve got to come back ... They played better than us and there’s not a whole lot more I can say.”
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