A morning of excitement and anticipation for Gophers fans turned into an evening of disappointment as Minnesota's regular season ended on the doorstep of the Big Ten Championship game.
Paul Bunyan's Axe will return to Madison as No. 9 Minnesota (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) fell victim to a beat down at the hands of rival No. 13 Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten), 38-17. The Gophers reached the end zone less than three minutes into the game but would not do so again until the game was out of reach and fans had mostly dispersed.
"It came down to, they made the plays when they presented themselves," head coach P.J. Fleck said. "We did not make the plays when they presented themselves and usually all year we made those plays. When you don't make those plays, a game like this happens."
On their second offensive snap, the Gophers showed that inclement weather conditions would not deter them from passing the ball. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman beat the Wisconsin secondary with a post rout and quarterback Tanner Morgan delivered with a 51-yard touchdown throw.
"Beginning of the game, I thought we executed." Bateman said. "Our details on that play worked, we were having fun out there. After that, I felt like the offense lost control of our details and we didn't execute well as a unit."
Early in the second quarter, the teams traded turnovers. Wisconsin receiver Aron Cruickshank fumbled in Gophers territory, ending the Badgers' most promising drive to that point. Three plays later, Morgan forced a pass into coverage which was intercepted by defensive back Caesar Williams. The Badgers could not find the end zone after the pick, but did get on the board with a field goal.
"I just have to fold," Morgan said of his interception. "You can't shape it over the linebacker when you only have five yards of space... I should have just taken the sack or found the check-down."
On its next possession, Minnesota could only move the ball to midfield before punting again. The Badgers then jumped in front after driving 82 yards, scoring on a 28-yard pass from quarterback Jack Coan to running back Jonathan Taylor.
Coan led Wisconsin down the field once again after Minnesota opened the second half with a punt. The Badgers drove 91 yards in four plays as Coan connected with receiver Quintez Cephus for gains of 31 and 47 yards, the latter going for a touchdown. Cephus ended the game with 114 receiving yards.
A 36-yard run from redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim helped move the Gophers into Wisconsin territory but they had to settle for a 38-yard field goal from kicker Michael Lantz. The Badgers ran a reverse on the ensuing kickoff that brought the ball to the Minnesota 40-yard line. Another run around two plays later went for a 26-yard touchdown that made the score 24-10.
"It's hard to predict trick plays, it's hard to predict reverses," Fleck said "They did a good job calling them in the right position, right execution."
Needing to score, Minnesota drove the ball inside the Wisconsin five-yard line. With their best chance to score since the first quarter, Morgan threw consecutive passes to senior Tyler Johnson on third and fourth down, both of which fell incomplete.
"We did not play well enough to win the Big Ten West today," Fleck said. "It doesn't mean we were not a good enough team to win the Big Ten West this year, we weren't a good enough team to win the Big Ten West today."
Following the turnover on downs, Wisconsin delivered the decisive blow to the Gophers' conference championship hopes. A third-down screen pass to running back Garrett Groshek gained 70 yards and Taylor carried the ball for an 11-yard score on the following play.
Morgan fumbled on the Gophers' next play from scrimmage, which quickly led to one more Wisconsin touchdown, once again from Taylor. Johnson also scored a touchdown for the Gophers, a score which had no effect on the game's outcome, but did tie him with Ron Johnson for most receiving touchdowns in program history.
With the defeat, the Gophers will sit at home next week as Wisconsin plays No. 2 Ohio State for the Big Ten title. Minnesota will now have to wait to learn its next opponent until bowl game matchups are announced.
"We are going to get some time to regroup, to go ahead and get better," senior defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere said. "If I want to see this program go where it needs to go, I need to spend this time instilling values and morals and work ethic into the younger guys because they are going to be the guys changing the page next year."