On Saturday afternoon, the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers overcame a 14-point deficit on their way to defeating the No. 18 Minnesota Golden Gophers 34-24. The win clinched the first ever Big Ten West division championship for the Badgers, who not only claimed Paul Bunyan's Axe for the 11 straight year, but now go on to face No. 6 Ohio State next Saturday for the Big Ten Championship.
To discuss the big victory, we welcome in three of our writers:
The Good: What went well for Wisconsin?
Andrew: The first quarter ended.
Honestly, on a day where the Gophers sold out to stop Melvin Gordon, and he had 151 hard-earned yards. The passing game stepped up in the second quarter, and Joel Stave to Alex Erickson forced the Gophers to play the run honestly Joel Stave went 10-for-14 for 201 yards and 2 scores in the final three quarters. It's going to sound egotistical, but I've always said Joel Stave was a better quarterback than you jerks gave him credit for. And in the past couple of weeks you're seeing Stave play a mature and efficient brand of football with a deep ball that's dialing back in.
More From the Game
Resilient Badgers capture Big Ten West, keep Axe
Despite going down 17-3 in their second consecutive home game, the Badgers came back behind the arm of Joel Stave and the legs of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.
More From the Game
Louis: I started typing "This Wisconsin team showed its resiliency" then I, uh, saw what Zach is about to say in the future. Sooooooooo ... let us praise Stave, who has come through in the clutch in consecutive nail biters, helping Wisconsin overcome its close game bugaboos and becoming the key piece of what is now a complete offense predicated on Gordon. Teams are going all-out to stop Gordon, as they should, but no longer do we have to worry whether Wisconsin's quarterback can hit an open man. Further, Stave's deep ball is looking better than it did at any point last season. This isn't the world's greatest offense, but it's good enough to take on [Ohio State defensive coordinator] Luke Fickell's underperforming defense. I'm satiated.
Zach: This Wisconsin team showed off its resiliency once again as they outscored the Gophers 31-7 after falling behind 17-3 early in the second quarter. The Badgers were able to take back the momentum at the end of the first half and never relinquished it for the rest of the game. I loved Andersen's decision to go for points when the Badgers took over with 18 seconds left in the first half on their own 31-yard line rather than playing it safe. The decision showed that Andersen has at least some confidence in his passing attack to come up clutch when he needs them. I thought Stave's two completions to Erickson that drive were two of the best passes he has made all year.
The Bad: How did the Gophers exploit the Badgers?
Andrew: The Badgers didn't see what the Gophers were doing straight away, and while there was only one turnover that the Badgers had, it took the offense a long time to see that one or both of Cedric Thompson and that jerk Damarius Travis were just playing downhill and attacking a gap or two most of the time. Also? Tanner McEvoy's thrown exactly one pass in the last three weeks. Sure, I'm not trying to tell you that he should be starting because his last pass was a six yard gain so he's batting 1.000 since the Rutgers game, because I was alive in September.
But damn, you have a receiving corps that's cromulent. You have a mobile quarterback. You can use this to make sure that wags aren't yelling "RUN!" the moment the ball is snapped to ol' Tanner Mac. I know, I'm an idiot. But I can see this. It's annoying when it feels like certain coaches just can't.
Louis: Once again, I believe Zach is about to say a smart thing.
Other than special teams, Wisconsin's front seven once again struggled against a power team before halftime. Dave Aranda's preference isn't to stay home against the run, and his aggressive nature may be a hindrance at times. The good news is that he is now clearly willing to adjust, which was an issue the last time Wisconsin held Senior Day.
Wisconsin's personnel is good enough in all facets to overcome slow starts against the Nebraskas and Minnesotas of the world. A 17-3 deficit may not be surmountable against a top five Ohio State team, however. Wisconsin was tremendous after halftime in those two games, but -- to parrot the worst sports cliche of all time -- it will "need to play four quarters of football" to win the Big Ten championship (ach, I'm sorry).
Zach: It seems every week we're talking about how bad the Badgers' punters are performing; and once again we were underwhelmed by the Drew Meyer/Bart Houston tandem. The average punt length for the Badgers on Saturday was only 39.7 yards, Minnesota averaged 51 yards. This poor punting performance by Wisconsin led to field position becoming a major problem in the first half--the Badgers never started past their own 31-yard line, while the Gophers started past their own 40-yard line four times. Field position wasn't as big of an issue in the second half, but it could still be a cause for concern heading into next week.
B5Q Game Balls: Who earned them on Senior Day?
Andrew: Corey Clement deserves some love. Because while Jerry Kill saw the episode of Coach where reports of Bo Whitley's Pineapple bowl demise were greatly exaggerated and it got people thinking David Cobb was on one leg, (I mean sure he probably was, but he had 95 yards in the first half and CLEARLY that was shenanigans-based) Clement almost got to one 100 yards with one healthy arm. I mean, I give Andy Ludwig a lot of capsed lock-based garbage, but let's be honest. You wouldn't see a backfield of Derek Watt and Tanner McEvoy if they didn't absolutely have to.
And it's pretty funny that neither Louis or Zach didn't name a senior on senior day. I will. Because Marcus Trotter and Peniel Jean both ended their final regular seasons with career highs in tackles.
Even More from the Game
Melvin Gordon takes the Axe
The Axe Game is a blast, especially if you're a Wisconsin fan (zing). One reason why? Photos like this, from Jeff Hanisch of USA TODAY Sports.
Even More from the Game
Louis: This should go to a senior, right? Can I cheat and say Erickson on a technicality? Cool, I'll do that.
Erickson showed a Nigel Hayes-ian level of guile, drawing pass interference calls on two deep balls and doing his best Jared Abbrederis impression by somehow putting up video game numbers despite playing within a limited passing system. If the 2015 offense approaches the production of its previous three iterations, it'll be because Erickson developed into one of the best receivers in the conference. He isn't far from greatness. If he starts coming down with the deep balls that keep hitting him in the hands despite defensive interference, Wisconsin will be significantly better for it, nevermind how much the young receivers behind him should improve.
Zach: I'll give mine to Stave and Erickson. Stave turned in a solid performance, throwing for 215 yards, two touchdowns and most importantly no interceptions. Erickson had a big day as well, hauling in five catches for a career-high 160 receiving yards. The duo's 70-yard completion in the second quarter was the play that really started to turn things around for the Badgers. I thought it was nice to see someone other than Gordon break off a big play to change the momentum of the game. Minnesota keyed in on the run for most of the game, and Stave was able to capitalize as a result.
Who's next: Ohio State
Andrew: Ohio State has a run defense that's pretty average. And while we again don't know just how healthy everyone's going to be for the Badgers, (Though it's good news Damarius Travis didn't do anything but ding up the top of Gordon's foot), the average Ohio State fan is worried about the possibility of getting rushed upon for a billion yards. That said? Andy Ludwig really didn't call a game that would provoke a need for a leveraged defense this week.
The Badgers line is great, but it just cannot overpower a defensive line with quick penetrators. And Joey Bosa is some ridiculous force of nature. Tyler Marz on an island might be a recipe for a bad time without some chip blocks, some scrape blocks, and some routes that sit right where Bosa's supposed to be.
That said? Stave had his best game as a Sophomore in the horseshoe. He threw for 295 yards and 2 scores, and he did it without Jacob Pedersen. Though sure, the pass defense isn't as much of a sieve for the Buckeyes as it was last year, but the Badgers have shown they have enough through the air that going all in on stopping the run isn't exactly cruise control for a victory.
Only question is the obvious question, how will Cardale "Play School" Jones handle his first start. Obviously, he's physically gifted, and like Iowa, the Buckeyes do have a lot of targets to throw to. But this isn't exactly going in against some scrubs and getting to work when you're up 30. Jones has 16 career passes, he could very well be the type of quarterback that Aranda has done real well in shutting down this year,
Short story longer? The Badgers' path to victory doesn't have as much ifs as someone mainstream might think, but I'm probably going to change my mind on whether they win or not multiple times during the week.
Louis: I'm going to say Wisconsin is going to win. I admit that this isn't wise.
Wisconsin can not turn the ball over early. A multiple score deficit could be the Badgers' death knell in Indy. Ohio State's defensive line wants nothing more than to tee off against Wisconsin in obvious passing situations. Bless Marz and Rob Havenstein for being the dozer-est of road graders, but they looked awful in pass protection against Minnesota, and perhaps no team in the country can match the Buckeyes' talent on the defensive line.
The good news is that Ohio State isn't disciplined beyond the first level. Yes, giving up 152 yards rushing to Michigan is a major indictment against the front seven. Wisconsin should once again be able to enforce its will in the running game as it has all season. The sooner the better, however, and that means being mistake free early in the game.
Wisconsin won't face J.T. Barrett, but at this point I have faith that an Urban Meyer quarterback will be fully prepared even after just one week of first-team snaps. Cardale Jones adds more explosiveness to what is already one of the most explosive offenses in football. This will absolutely be Wisconsin's biggest defensive challenge to date, which is bad news for a unit that has looked mortal since godly performances against 'eh' Maryland and Rutgers squads.
Wisconsin will win because neither Kenzel Doe nor Gordon will fumble the football (right?), Aranda will confuse Jones and an unsound offensive line, and Gordon and Clement will combine to keep Ohio State's offense off the field for long stretches. Wisconsin will not keep Ohio State from scoring on several big plays, but Ohio State won't establish a rhythm until too late.
I think the correct offensive gameplan may actually be to let Andy Ludwig act on his worst tendencies. Let's try play action early instead of taking several possessions to learn that the opposing defense is doing everything it can to stop Gordon. We don't have to get weird. Just let Stave and Erickson do what they have been doing well the last two weeks, then let the Heisman candidate take over when the defense is properly confuzzled.
(Editor note:) extra points to Louis for using the term "confuzzled" -- I thought I was the only one who still used it)
Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Ohio State 28. And no, I don't feel particularly confident about any of this.
Zach: Despite Barrett going down with fractured ankle on Saturday against Michigan, I still think Ohio State could be the favorite to win this game. Jones will make his first career start for the Buckeyes. Jones' playing style is very similar to that of Braxton Miller and Barrett--at 6'5, 250-pounds Jones is strong, physical dual-threat quarterback who could be able to cause some problems for Aranda's defense.
The Buckeyes will be playing for a potential birth in the College Football Playoff, and I'm sure Urban Meyer and company will still have the memory of last year's disappointing loss in the Big Ten Championship fresh in their minds heading into Saturday's matchup. Overall, I think this game hinges on whether or not Ohio State is able to slow down Gordon. In the end, I think Melvin will shine under the national spotlight and make one last case for Heisman voters as to why he is more deserving than Mariota. My early prediction is Wisconsin 31 Ohio State 20
(Editor note: To confirm Zach's point about Gordon impressing Heisman Trophy voters, Heisman ballots were distributed on Monday, Nov. 24 and must be submitted by Monday, Dec. 8)