- Brian Bennett, College Football
- 0 Shares
MADISON, Wis. -- The celebrations might have felt a little familiar for Wisconsin, but that didn't take away any of the enthusiasm.
The Badgers beat Minnesota 34-24 on Saturday to win the Paul Bunyan Axe trophy for the 11th straight year. They also clinched the West Division title and a spot in next week's Big Ten championship, which is also a recurring theme. Wisconsin will be playing in that game for the third time in the event's four-year history.
Still, players and coaches giddily ran around Camp Randall Stadium with the axe after grinding out a physical, hard-fought win over the No. 18 Gophers. And they put on hats and T-shirts declaring themselves the West Division champs following an on-field, postgame presentation that seemed more fitting for a postseason game.
"That was a cool feeling for us, a cool experience," quarterback Joel Stave said. "Being under the lights, on the stage, the crowd sticking around -- it was just very cool."
The No. 14 Badgers might not be done hoisting trophies or standing on triumphant platforms, either. Not long ago, they would have been considered significant underdogs against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. But with Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett out for the season after he suffered a broken ankle against Michigan, Wisconsin just might be the favorite in Indianapolis.
At the very least, Buckeyes backup quarterback Cardale Jones will have his hands full trying to deal with what has statistically been the best defense in the Big Ten, one that offers confusing looks with its aggressive 3-4 scheme.
"If he hasn't played that much, maybe we can get him flustered and get him off balance," Wisconsin linebacker Joe Schobert said. "But we've got to prepare like we're playing J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller. You can't take a guy lightly, because they have a lot of good athletes over there."
Badgers players expressed empathy about Barrett's injury -- "He's such a valuable asset, and you always want to play against the best players," linebacker Marcus Trotter said -- and they can relate to the need to overcome adversity.
This is a team that had to replace eight defensive starters in the offseason and whose starting quarterback battled a case of the yips in August and September. They blew a big lead in a loss to LSU in the opener and dropped a head-scratcher against Northwestern early in conference play.
Yet they won their final seven games of the regular season and might be peaking here at the end.
"It's been a heck of a journey," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "I feel great about taking this team to Indy. They're resilient and tough-minded."
Wisconsin needed that resiliency to clear its final hurdle toward a division title.
For the second time in three weeks, it let a road opponent go ahead 17-3 in the first half. Unlike Nebraska, however, Minnesota was not going to let Melvin Gordon simply run wild all over the place. The Gophers kept their safeties in the box and hit Gordon early and often with sure tackling. The Badgers' Heisman Trophy candidate finished with 151 yards but had to earn every bit of it. He had only two 20-plus-yard runs (none longer than 24) and did his most impressive work turning nothing into 4- or 5-yard gains.
"I knew I was going to have to grind it out today," said Gordon, who pronounced himself healthy despite limping off the field late. "The games that you have to push out and grind out, those are the games you love the best. You get hit, you get knocked down to the ground and you get back up and you keep fighting.
Andersen said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig knew he'd have to dial up some downfield throws to loosen up the Gophers' defense. That's been a shaky proposition for Wisconsin's offense for a couple of years. But Stave, getting better every week after overcoming those mental issues at the beginning of the season, turned in an efficient performance in going 11-for-18 for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns, with no interceptions.
The Badgers also got a career day from receiver Alex Erickson (5 catches for 160 yards) and clinched the victory on Stave's 17-yard touchdown strike to Robert Wheelwright, who had only two career catches and none this season before Saturday. It was those kinds of unlikely contributions -- plus an 89-yard effort from backup tailback Corey Clement, who was playing with one healthy shoulder -- that Andersen said made him the proudest.
Wisconsin wasn't perfect against Minnesota and committed a lot of mistakes in the first half, allowing the Gophers some short fields and quick scoring drives. Despite dealing with a hamstring injury that made him doubtful for the game, Minnesota's David Cobb ripped off some big runs in the first half. Many more offensive playmakers will confront the defense next week, even with Barrett out.
"To beat Ohio State, we can't miss as many tackles as we did today," Trotter said.
But much the way their season has gone, the Badgers finished out strong, scoring 31 of the game's final 38 points. Now they have a solid chance to derail Ohio State's playoff chase and claim the Big Ten title for themselves.
"We don't want to just go there," Gordon said, "we want to win it."
Don't be surprised if they're celebrating on an even bigger stage next Saturday night.
By winning the Paul Bunyan Axe for the 11th straight time, Wisconsin reaches the Big Ten title game for the third time the event's four-year history.