For the ninth straight year, the Wisconsin Badgers have won Paul Bunyan's Axe. The running back tandem of Montee Ball and James White put together another spectacular combination performance, racking up over 300 yards on the ground and five rushing touchdowns as a pair in the Badgers' 38-13 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The Badgers didn't quite match last week's unbelievable 467 yards on the ground, but Bret Bielema probably won't complain about his team's excellent 6.2 yards per carry performance. On a day where Joel Stave seriously struggled, going just 7-15 passing for 106 yards, the Badgers needed huge performances from White and Ball.
Minnesota handed freshman QB Philip Nelson, a former Badger recruit, his first career collegiate start. He had flashes of brilliance and appears to have a bright future with the Gophers, but also took a few bad losses, both via called run plays and sacks. While the Gophers were trailing and throwing to get back into the game in the second half, Nelson threw two picks, but also threw two touchdowns and managed 4.2 yards per carry on the ground.
Wisconsin's first drive ended after just three plays, with Brian Wozniak dropping what should have been an easy third down conversion, but they came to life on their second possession. Stave found Jared Abbrederis for 42 yards on a play action pass on first down, and White capped off the drive with an eight yard rush, followed by a 14-yard touchdown run off a direct snap out of the Wildcat formation to put the Badgers up 7-0.
The following Gophers drive was Nelson's best of the day and featured three big plays by the freshman QB. He found Drew Goodger for 18 yards on 2nd and three from the Minnesota 42, then picked up 20 yards on the ground over the next two plays. On 2nd and six from the Wisconsin 16, he found Brandon Green in the end zone to cap off an impressive touchdown drive. However, Minnesota failed to tie the game thanks to a missed extra point by Jordan Wettstein.
Both offenses looked ugly for the rest of the first half until the very end of the second quarter. Stave managed to get sacked on 3rd down to take Wisconsin out of field goal range on two consecutive drives, accounting for two out of the four times that Wisconsin had to punt from inside Minnesota territory. The Gophers didn't have much more success in the rest of the half, as the Badgers' D began to do a better job of sniffing out Nelson's runs.
On their final drive of the first half, the Badgers' offense finally broke through to put UW up by a touchdown at halftime. White and Ball combined to march Wisconsin from their own 30-yard line to the end zone with 3:50 remaining in the 2nd quarter. White got things moving with a 26-yard rush, which was followed up by a 14-yard run by Ball. White capped off the drive with a great burst of speed on 1st down from the Minnesota 34, ripping off a long run to put Wisconsin up 14-6. Minnesota attempted to drive down the field and cut Wisconsin's lead just before the half, but Wettstein missed a 51-yard field goal attempt.
Wisconsin drove into Minnesota territory on their first drive after the halftime break, but was forced to punt after crossing the 50-yard line once again. On 3rd down and two from the Minnesota 41, Stave had both Jared Abbrederis and Derek Watt open, but threw both late and off target to Watt, hitting a defender in the back.
Nelson attempted to force a ball into a tight spot on 3rd down and five on Minnesota's next possession, but Devin Smith made an excellent play to bat the ball up into the air, then come up with an interception to give Wisconsin excellent field position. Stave missed two more throws on the ensuing UW drive, but Kyle French was accurate on a 33-yard field goal attempt and extended the Badgers' lead to two scores.
After another Minnesota three-and-out, White put the Badgers firmly in control of the game. He nearly broke free for a touchdown on a 9-yard run before he was tripped up, and that burst turned out to be a sign of what was to come. On the fourth play of the drive, White showed off his fantastic speed and blew by the Gophers' linebackers and secondary in an impressive 48-yard touchdown run.
That looked like a near-dagger for the struggling Gophers, but they found new life with a great drive. Nelson had the ball in his hands for eight of the nine plays on Minnesota's next drive and accounted for all 66 of their yards between four rushes and four passes. The drive was capped off by a touchdown pass to A.J. Barker, and Nelson took a somewhat dirty hit from Chirs Borland in the process that was rightly flagged for roughing the passer.
Because Borland's foul moved the kickoff up to the 50-yard line, Jerry Kill dialed up an onside kick. He nearly looked like a genius when one Badger bobbled the ball, allowing it to bounce around on the turf, but Watt jumped on top of the loose ball and recovered for UW.
Minnesota would eventually regret giving the Badgers excellent field position when they stuck in the real dagger at the end of a 11-play, 60-yard, four-plus minute drive. Ball and White traded carries and both picked up first downs en route to Ball's 14-yard touchdown run. The wheels came off for the Gophers at this point, with Nelson throwing a pick to Ethan Armstrong on Minnesota's next play from scrimmage. On the ensuing Badgers drive, Ball took off on a 44-yard touchdown run to put Wisconsin up 38-13 and ice the game.
The Badgers started a bit slow again, while Stave continues to work through the first-year starter kinks, but this was a very solid performance for UW, all things considered. They move to 3-1 in the Big Ten with this victory and should move back into the Top 25 next week for the first time since their loss to Nebraska.