Wisconsin fans have become quite familiar with 17-3 deficits.
Just as was the case against Nebraska, the Badgers trailed Minnesota 17-3 in the second quarter Saturday in Madison.
But toward the end of the half, Joel Stave's 70-yard connection with Alex Erickson on 3rd-and-8 brought the Badgers to Minnesota's 8-yard line. That led to a 4-yard Melvin Gordon touchdown catch, putting the Badgers in the end zone for the first time and jumpstarting a 31-7 run that resulted in the Badgers retaining Paul Bunyan's Axe for the 11th straight year.
A few notes on the win:
- Stave continued his efficient run -- he hasn't thrown a pick in three weeks and only has one in his last six starts. He threw for 215 yards and two scores on 12-of-18 passing, with Erickson emerging even further as the standout receiver the Badgers had been searching for. He caught five passes for 160 yards.
- Per usual, the Badgers' rushing game sent them to their seventh-straight win. While Gordon was the work horse throughout the night (151 yards, two total touchdowns), Corey Clement came through in key situations late in the game. He ran for 89 yards on just seven carries, including a 28-yard third-quarter score on his first carry to put the Badgers ahead for the first time all afternoon.
- The victory clinches the Big Ten West title for the Badgers and sets up a matchup with Ohio State on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium for the Big Ten Championship.
Entering the final three-game gauntlet against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, the Badgers needed to turn in some of their best performances of the season in order to take the Big Ten West crown. Save the Nebraska game, they weren't all blowouts, but the final two all-important wins against Iowa and Minnesota proved the Badgers' grit.
The offense didn't score 60+ points. The defense didn't pitch a pair of shutouts. We didn't get to see Bart Houston in the fourth quarter. But the Badgers notched two consecutive gutsy victories, and they now find themselves one more away from a Big Ten title and a berth in one of the "New Year's Six" bowls, with an outside, outside shot at the College Football Playoff. (Expect to see the No. 14 Badgers creep towards the top 10. The 10-to-12 range is a realistic one.)
Heisman in doubt?
Melvin Gordon ran for a very quiet 151 yards on 29 carries against the Gophers. For someone who averages 188 yards per game and has posted five 200+ yard outings, 151 yards won't necessarily send the Heisman voters into Melvin hysteria. Especially on a day that saw Marcus Mariota throw for 367 yards and score six total touchdowns while Amari Cooper caught 13 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns in the Iron Bowl, Gordon's chances to actually win the award seem to be slimming. But it is quite incredible that Gordon can run for 151 yards, score two touchdowns and it appears to be a below-average day. That's what happens when a running back sets the bar astronomically high.
He'll undoubtedly head to New York as a finalist, but whether merited or not, he seems to be slipping behind Mariota in many eyes.
But Gordon's got a shot for sure. We'll see what he does in Indy against the Big Ten's fifth-ranked rushing defense. Keep in mind, he's only 368 yards away from Barry Sanders' FBS single-season rushing record of 2,628.
Around the Big Ten
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The only game of true importance for the Badgers on Saturday was their own, with a "win and you're in" mindset entering their rivalry matchup. Elsewhere, Northwestern fell to 5-7 on the year with a 47-33 loss to Illinois in Evanston, making the Badgers' Week 6 loss to the Wildcats an even uglier stain on an otherwise impressive 10-2 regular season.
But perhaps the most important non-Wisconsin Big Ten result was Ohio State's 42-28 win over Michigan, during which the Wolverines exposed some of the Buckeyes' vulnerabilities but also fractured sensational redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett's right ankle on this play:
Next up is the Big Ten Championship game, a game the Badgers have never lost (they beat Michigan State and Nebraska). They'll face Ohio State this year, but the Buckeyes, sans Barrett, aren't quite as menacing without their phenomenal dual-threat quarterback.
"We lost a Heisman candidate today," Meyer said. "We're going to find out if we earn our coaching stripes now."
Still, overlooking the No. 6 Buckeyes would be absurd. Ohio State is one of the nation's best teams. It's certainly not going to fold up because of one injury.
Sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott (1,182 yards, 10 touchdowns) has rattled off two-straight hundred-yard games and has helped guide a top-20 rushing attack throughout the season. Their ground game will certainly decline without Barrett, but backup quarterback Cardale Jones is an electric runner himself: he's rushed for 316 yards in the seven games during which he's seen limited action throughout his career.
You probably best know Jones for the below tweet, but like Barrett and Braxton Miller, Jones is an athletic QB with big-play potential through the air and on the ground. He threw for 2,168 yards during his junior season at Glenville High School in Cleveland and also notched 14 career rushing touchdowns in high school.
The Ohio State defense isn't a top-five unit like that of the Badgers, which ended up allowing 177 rushing yards to Minnesota, but the Buckeyes do rank in the top 20 nationwide. The good news for Gordon and the offense is that Ohio State has generally been better defending the pass than the run, but star defensive linemen Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett won't make life easy for Gordon.
With Barrett's injury, Saturday's game became quite a bit more manageable for Gary Andersen's squad, but Ohio State is an opponent that absolutely cannot be taken lightly.
Badgers fans have seen some magical moments in Big Ten title games. Few, particularly Gus Johnson, will forget Jeff Duckworth dramatically reeling in a Russell Wilson 36-yard pass on 4th-and-6 against Michigan State in 2011, keeping the Badgers alive for an eventual 42-39 win in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.
[Ed. note: Oh, you actually wanted to see that play again?]
The next year, the Badgers totaled 539 rushing yards en route to a 70-30 rout of Nebraska to win the Big Ten for the third straight year.
On Saturday, this year's Badgers will look to make their own portion of Wisconsin football history.
"Instead of getting on a plane to go recruiting, we're getting an opportunity to go play again," Andersen said at his postgame press conference. "We're excited about that ... It's been a heck of a journey."