Head coach P.J. Fleck said earlier in the week the Gophers' care of the ball hadn't been where it needed to be. That message was heard loud and clear Saturday, evidenced by the Gophers' performance.
"The ball has not been the program," Fleck said Tuesday regarding the team's turnover problem. "We are lucky we are 5-6; we got to be able to fix that."
The program was in good hands Saturday. The Gophers (6-6, 3-6) forced three interceptions and a fumble recovery on defense and committed zero turnovers on offense.
The differential proved to be the key as Minnesota knocked off the Badgers (7-5, 5-4) 37-15 in Madison, Wisconsin. This was the Gophers' first time winning in Madison since 1994.
"We won the turnover margin. ... We are 6-0 when we do that, and 0-6 when we don't. And they did exactly what they needed to do," Fleck said. "I thought our defense came up big; they made huge plays."
Saturday marked the first game of the season that the offense committed zero turnovers.
"The ball is the program, no question about [it]. Previously, we hadn't been taking care of it like it was the program," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "When you take care of the ball [and] don't turn it over, there's a good chance you're gonna win the ball game, and that's what we were doing tonight."
In the second quarter, quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw a pass into the waiting hands of Gophers' cornerback Coney Durr, who returned it 25 yards to Minnesota's 41-yard line. The offense converted with the fortunate field position into a touchdown from Mohamed Ibrahim, resulting in a 10-0 lead.
In the third quarter, Hornibrook made another mistake. He threw the ball on the run, and the pass went off the hands of his wide receiver. Minnesota linebacker Julian Huff was there to intercept it. Huff made the play in relief of Blake Cashman, who was ejected in the first half for targeting after leading with his head while tackling a defenseless player.
"Julian came in and really stepped up. You saw he had the pick. ... When his number was called, he was ready to go," said linebacker Thomas Barber.
It appeared the Badgers had one last chance after Emmitt Carpenter missed a 28-yard field goal attempt to extend the lead to three possessions. They were down 23-7 with 5:37 remaining in the game.
However, on the second play of the drive Carter Coughlin exploded off the line and strip-sacked Hornibrook. Linebacker Barber fell on it. On the next play, Bryce Williams ran 21 yards for the touchdown — sealing the Gophers' first victory against Wisconsin since 2003.
"It was a great play by Carter [Coughlin] and Gary [Moore], and at that point I was like, 'if I get this ball right now, we seal the deal.' It was just kind of a 'refuse to lose' [moment], and I was fighting for it," said Barber.
With 4:56 remaining and a lead of 30-7, Chris Williamson added the icing on the cake. He came away with the third interception of the game on a diving catch.
With the stout defensive performance, the group played most of the game without Cashman, one of its emotional leaders, after he was ejected. If the Gophers hadn't won, Cashman was at risk of not seeing the field again in his college career. However, his team rallied around him and continued to play.
"The entire season you've seen Blake Cashman play with the most amount of energy and passion I've ever seen a player play with," said Coughlin. "So Blake goes out, and it really quickly switches to 'we are doing this thing for Blake.' That dude is an unbelievable leader. He is everything Gopher football is all about. ... I'm so glad we got to do this for him."
The Gopher defense was able to get it done for Cashman, which will allow him to play for the Gophers one more time this season. The team became bowl-eligible with the win. The bowl game and date will be announced following the selection of the college football playoff December 2.