With the offensive line undergoing yet another combination of players, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst may have found a future starting five to keep heading into their bowl game, as UW retained Paul Bunyan's Axe for the 12th straight year in a 31-21 victory at TCF Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.
The defense yet again deserves credit for holding an opponent to under 300 total yards, while forcing five turnovers and pressuring Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner all afternoon.
A gritty victory when many were thinking the Axe would go elsewhere, Saturday's game was a fitting end to the regular season that's been hampered by injuries -- though the Badgers never gave into the "woe is me" attitude.
1. The Badgers offensive line dominated Minnesota's front seven in the first half, and may have finally found a solid offensive line combination. In the first half, the Badgers gained 199 yards on 35 carries on the ground -- with four rushing touchdowns. Minnesota was without two of its starting defensive linemen, but Wisconsin had to slide in right tackle Beau Benzschawel to right guard, with Jacob Maxwell making his first start at right tackle since the Iowa game. That put four redshirt freshman on the line, and its sixth combination through 12 games.
In the first two Wisconsin scoring drives, only two passes were called total. 22 of those 24 plays were runs, with the Badgers overmatching the Gophers. Redshirt junior running back Dare Ogunbowale rushed for a career-high 155 yards on 33 carries for a touchdown, while redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal rushed for 90 yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns.
Wisconsin needed to drive a dagger through the heart of the Gophers in the second half, but never got that last touchdown to put the icing on the cake inside TCF Stadium. Regardless, they responded with arguably their best or most impressive effort of the year, at least in the first two quarters.
Give Benzschawel credit as well in his first start, as his pulling on multiple runs led to big gains for the Wisconsin offense.
2. Defense forced the turnovers when it counted, did not break. Senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert's forced fumble in the second quarter led to Wisconsin's go-ahead touchdown. Redshirt senior safety Michael Caputo stripped the ball the drive immediately thereafter, which then compounded the advantage to 14 points after the offense charged down the field -- ending with Ogunbowale's 18-yard scamper for a 28-14 lead.
Schobert, who ended the game with five tackles, that forced fumble AND an interception, helped lead a defense that held Minnesota to 276 yards total and only 3-of-12 on third down conversions.
Wisconsin took the ball away five times (three interceptions and two forced fumbles), and when the offense could not put the game away in the second half, outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt continued to pressure Leidner -- forcing him into bad decisions. Redshirt senior safety Tanner McEvoy had another two interceptions in the win.
This is a truly special defense, Badgers fans. Don't forget this.
3. Wisconsin responds when adversity hits. The Badgers could have had a hangover after their loss to Northwestern a week earlier by the way they lost, and with junior running back Corey Clement not available, the "intangibles" seemed to stack against them. Couple that with the Gophers yearning for the Axe this season and former head coach Jerry Kill there in the stadium on Senior Day? The recipe was ripe for an upset in favor of the Gophers.
It would not be the case, however. Even after redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave's pick-six on their first offensive play, the Badgers did not let the game get out of hand. Rather, they pounded the ball, were physical on both sides of the ball, and came away with a road victory against their rival -- and most importantly, will carry that Axe back to Madison.