It was a familiar tune for the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday afternoon. Down by two touchdowns only five minutes into the second quarter due to a key turnover and poor field position to a vaunted rival, the No. 18 Minnesota Gophers, the Badgers had a significant hole to dig out of.
This was not the first time head coach Gary Andersen's team faced adversity at home, as two weeks prior, Nebraska capitalized off of turnovers to take the lead by 14 points early in the game. Facing the more physical and competent defense of the Gophers, however, forced Wisconsin's offense go three-and-out on three of its first four drives.
After holding Minnesota to a punt on its second possession in the second quarter, junior quarterback Joel Stave jumpstarted a dormant offense by hitting junior wide receiver Alex Erickson for a 70-yard gain. Three plays later, completed a key third down pass to junior running back Melvin Gordon for a 4-yard touchdown pass.
From there, the Badgers scored 24 unanswered points and held Minnesota's offense to 119 yards in the second half. Capped off with a late Rob Wheelwright touchdown reception, Wisconsin held on to Paul Bunyan's Axe for the eleventh consecutive year in a 34-24 victory. More importantly, the win clinched the Big Ten West division title for Wisconsin and secured a date with Ohio State next Saturday for the Big Ten title.
"Overall, again, you look at this football team, adversity strikes, they keep on fighting and battling just like they have all year long," Andersen said after the game Saturday.
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"They've dealt with it on the field, they've dealt with it off the field, they've dealt with it as a team very, very well. So proud of them."
The game certainly did not start well for Wisconsin. After stopping Minnesota on its first offensive series, senior Kenzel Doe fumbled the punt, and the Gophers recovered. Two plays later, quarterback Mitch Leidner scored on a designed quarterback run to the left for an early 7-0 lead.
Three-and-outs were common for Wisconsin's offense in the early going. After its first true offensive drive ended with freshman kicker Rafael Gaglianone's 24-yard field goal after 12 plays and 69 yards, the Badgers only accumulated eight yards in the next three drives. Minnesota capitalized off of great position -- with their second and third scoring drives starting at Wisconsin's 40 and their own 49, respectively -- and after a Ryan Santoso 37-yard field goal, led 17-3 with 10:48 left in the first half.
Then, the Badgers offense came to life. On a 3rd-and-8 from their own 22, Stave found Erickson for the big gain -- Stave's longest pass of his career, as Erickson was tackled on the Gophers' 8-yard line. Three plays later, Gordon's touchdown catch reinvigorated the Badgers, putting them within one score at 17-10.
"That was a big play for us, being in a third and long kind of situation down in our own territory," Stave said, who finished the day 11-of-18 for 215 yards and two touchdown passes. "Being able to convert that really put our offense in a good position."
Minnesota responded the next series by driving 41 yards in 10 plays, but a fumbled exchange between Leidner and David Cobb -- who was questionable coming into the game with a hamstring injury -- led to junior safety Mike Caputo jumping on the ball. Stave, now 20-6 as a starter, drove the Badgers down to field goal position with only 18 seconds left in the half, completing two passes for 49 yards to Erickson. Erickson, the former walk-on from Darlington, Wis., finished the day with a career-high 160 yards on five receptions. Gaglianone's 38-yard field goal made it 17-13 at halftime, with momentum fully swinging to Wisconsin's side.
"I thought the big turning point was when we got the fumble, with 18 seconds left were able to go get a field goal in the second quarter," Andersen said. "That was a big‑time moment."
After the teams traded punts in their first series of the third quarter, Stave and company got to work again. Driving 52 yards and helped by a pass interference penalty that brought the ball to the Gophers' 28-yard line, sophomore running back Corey Clement took the Stave handoff 28 yards for the go-ahead score.
For Clement, who had been battling a shoulder injury and was limited in practice during the week, it was his first carry of the game. He finished the game with 89 yards on seven carries, and pushed through the soreness of a deep bruise in the AC joint of his right shoulder.
"Really, I wasn't really supposed to play today unless I was really needed," Clement said. "I was kind of looking forward to next week. Melvin said 'I'm basically handle this game for you, and if I need to come out, you're going to have to help me.
"And that's just respecting Melvin. He gave me the opportunity just to get out and just get the legs back under myself, and it felt great."
On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin's defense stiffened up against Minnesota's offense. The Gophers only ran ten plays for 24 yards in the third quarter. This was in stark contrast to the first half, where the Badgers gave up 125 yards on the ground and 153 yards total. Coming in only allowing 97.1 yards per game on the ground, Cobb alone had 95 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown in the first two quarters.
His touchdown, a 40-yard run in the first quarter, included breaking a tackle of senior inside linebacker Marcus Trotter. Though the Badgers altogether gave up 177 yards on the ground for the game, the defense only gave up 50 yards rushing in the second half and stifled Minnesota's poor passing game throughout the afternoon, as Leidner was 5-of-18 for 95 yards. The Gophers averaged only 4.4 yards per play for the game.
"When that play happened, I solely take responsibility," said Trotter, who finished with a team-high 14 tackles. "That was my fault -- I should have brought him down -- but I think one of the reasons why our defense is so good, too, is because we have a short memory. It was easy for myself to beat myself up or any other guys who's missed a tackle, too, but we're very, very good at adversity, and we always look at the next play."
Gordon, who ran for 151 yards on 29 carries, scored from one yard out in the fourth quarter to give the Badgers a 27-17 lead. Though Minnesota scored on a Leidner 2-yard scamper to pull within a field goal later in the fourth quarter, the Badgers' passing game responded once again.
After a series of runs by Gordon had Wisconsin on its own 43, Stave found Erickson once again for a 31-yard pass out of a bubble screen. Two plays later, Stave found Wheelwright on a 17-yard skinny post to put the game back to a two-score advantage for the Badgers.
Wisconsin once again stepped up in midst of in-game adversity, the third challenge in its last three contests, and chopped down the goal posts after Camp Randall's clocks struck zero. They also held up the inaugural Big Ten West division championship trophy in celebration. They now will meet No. 6 Ohio State next Saturday, who is facing their own adversity with redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett out for the rest of the season with a fractured ankle earlier Saturday against Michigan.
Though many wrote off Wisconsin after losing to Northwestern in October, the Badgers now have a chance to win the Big Ten Championship -- a possible fourth in five years. Andersen credited the coaches, his young team and its leadership committee for continuing to fight on.
"I feel great about taking this team to Indy," Andersen said.
"We're in a good spot. We're resilient. We're tough‑minded. We're going to play against a very talented Ohio State team obviously. We're excited about that opportunity. And these kids set a goal to get to this moment. We're going to start preparing and we're going to see what happens."