The Gophers have been through six head coaches since the last time they took a victory over the Badgers. Minnesota took advantage to change that on Saturday and put head coach P.J. Fleck in the win column versus its rivals to the east.
Minnesota beat Wisconsin for the first time since 2003, taking Paul Bunyan's Axe back to Dinkytown for the first time in over a decade.
"I know this is a moment and memory they'll remember the rest of their life," Fleck said. "When you hold the axe ... you know why everyone wants it so much."
The victory marked Fleck's first road Big Ten win since taking over last season. The Gophers used turnovers, field goals, freshman running back Mohamed Ibrahim and a 69-yard punt return touchdown to fight their way to the end. Minnesota hadn't beaten the Badgers in their own Camp Randall Stadium since 1994.
Minnesota's rout put the all-time rivalry record back to even with a 60-60-8 all-time record in over 100 years of rivalry games. It was the last regular season game for Minnesota. The 6-6 record will give the team eligibility in a bowl game to extend its season.
"That moment is just something I will never forget in my entire life," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "[I] got really emotional. Probably almost cried — I don't know — but it's just such a surreal experience. And I was just very thankful for everybody that was here, and the roles that they played."
Ibrahim led the Minnesota offense with 26 carries for 121 yards and a touchdown. His first score was at 2:21 left in the second quarter on a fourth-and-inches situation, giving Minnesota a 10-0 lead. The Gophers scored again later in the second quarter when punt returner Demetrius Douglas took the punt 69 yards to the end zone, which gave the Gophers a 17-0 lead before anyone knew it.
"Mo [Ibrahim] played a huge role tonight in winning us this thing right here," Morgan said. "He's hit on contact and he's pushing, taking care of the ball. He's getting 2, 3 extra yards."
"My coaches put me in the best position to be able to return, and my teammates came through, got on their blocks, stayed on their blocks and just gave me a hole to run through," Douglas said. "It's just really a whole team effort."
The Gophers had a 17-7 lead at halftime, the same lead Minnesota had two seasons ago at Camp Randall when then-quarterback Mitch Leidner threw four interceptions in the second half to hand Wisconsin a 31-17 win.
Minnesota broke any hope of a Wisconsin comeback when the defense forced back-to-back turnovers deep in Badgers' territory late in the fourth quarter. Each turnover resulted in Gophers' touchdowns, both from Ibrahim's backup, freshman running back Bryce Williams. After the two Williams touchdowns the Gophers held a 37-7 lead.
The Badgers followed up with one touchdown late in the game, but it wasn't enough. The Gophers' players ran out on the field to get the prize sitting along one of the goalposts: Paul Bunyan's Axe.
"[I] kind of got a little emotional at the end when I realized, like, this is really going to happen for us," linebacker Thomas Barber said. "It was just credit to everybody on the team, and special shout out to the guys who are out of state guys."
Tanner Morgan completed 9-16 passes for 124 yards and no interceptions, and Hornibrook threw 22-33 for two touchdowns and three interceptions. The Badgers turned the ball over four times, but Minnesota never did.
The Gophers top tackler, linebacker Blake Cashman, was ejected after a targeting penalty on the punt early in the second quarter. Julian Huff filled in at weak side linebacker for Cashman for the remainder of the game. Huff recorded four tackles and an interception, while his brother, defensive back Jacob Huff, led the team with 10.
"You could see the emotion in his face, you could see his eyes starting to swell up. That's, like, the last thing he would ever want to happen," defensive end Carter Coughlin said about Cashman when the defense met before he was ejected. "As soon as they said it's confirmed, he said, 'you guys go do this thing.'"
After the game, Fleck announced that Joe Rossi, who took over as interim defensive coordinator after the firing of Robb Smith, was named the permanent defensive coordinator after his defense allowed 15 points to Wisconsin Saturday.
The Gophers finished the regular season 6-6 after the win at Wisconsin. They are bowl eligible and will wait to see what game they get picked to play when bowl season starts in mid-December.
Until then, fans can glare at the axe, which Fleck said will get a new display case in the Gophers' hall of fame.
"This is just a big win for our program, big win for the state of Minnesota," Fleck said. "We're so thankful we can give the state of Minnesota something to be really thankful for on Thanksgiving weekend."