MADISON, Wis. — A Gophers season that was off to a promising start has begun to
Minnesota dropped its third consecutive game, surrendered more than 300 yards on the ground and burned a valuable redshirt in a 38-13 loss to rival Wisconsin on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers claimed Paul Bunyan’s Axe — the annual trophy given to the winner of the game between the two teams — for a ninth straight season with the win.
The Gophers haven’t beaten Wisconsin since 2003, and no one in the senior class has ever wielded the axe.
“We wanted to go out there and bring it back home,” senior MarQueis Gray said after the game. “For us to leave without that axe is something that’s going to be with [the seniors] for the rest of our lives.”
Minnesota, which has struggled against the run all season, couldn’t contain the two-headed running monster of Montee Ball and James White. They combined for an overwhelming 341 yards on the ground.
“They’ve got some players that can make some plays in the backfield,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said after the loss.
No kidding, coach.
Ball, an All-American and a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, rushed 24 times for 166 yards and two scores Saturday.
White one-upped the All-American with 15 carries for 175 yards and three touchdowns.
Ball said competiveness between the two tailbacks fueled the ground game for Wisconsin.
“When [White] starts playing really, really well, it kind of sets a fire into me,” Ball said.
Minnesota had no such fire Saturday and struggled to find any semblance of a running attack to take some pressure off true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson.
Nelson said he had a sense he would start all week, but he officially found out Friday. He said it took him about two drives to get used to the speed of the college game.
“It was really exciting,” Nelson said. “I wasn’t going to back down for an opportunity like that.”
He looked poised at times in the first star of his career, but seemed to wear down by the end of the game.
Nelson finished 13-for-24 for 149 yards and two touchdowns, and he carried the ball 16 times for 67 yards. He struggled to find a rhythm aside from his two touchdown drives.
Despite the woes, Kill hinted the team would roll with Nelson as its quarterback for the rest of the season.
“We wouldn’t pull the redshirt off the kid [otherwise],” Kill said.
Though the final score didn’t show it, Minnesota’s defense started much better than it did against its past two opponents, Iowa and
White scored from 14 yards out for the first touchdown of the game, but Nelson responded with a quick drive that made it 7-6 after a failed extra point.
Minnesota capped that drive with a 16-yard touchdown strike from Nelson to Brandon Green. It was the first touchdown pass of Nelson’s young career.
White scored again before the half expired, and the Gophers entered the locker room trailing 14-6.
“I think in the first half we battled in there pretty good and we were in good position at halftime,” Kill said.
Things quickly fell apart in the second half. White added his third score from 48 yards out to stretch the lead to 24-6.
Nelson led another scoring drive in response to the touchdown, but it wasn’t enough.
Wisconsin imposed its will on the Gophers after halftime, and it busted the game wide open in the fourth quarter with two scores by Ball.
“They just wore us down by the end of the day,” Kill said, “and when you wear people down a lot of times that’s where a lot of mistakes [happen].”
Minnesota barely touched the ball in the fourth quarter, and the Badgers consistently pounded the ball to run out the clock.
The Gophers dropped to 4-3 on the season and 0-3 in the Big Ten with the loss.