The now-No. 25 Wisconsin Badgers (9-3, 5-2) claimed Paul Bunyan's Axe for the 12th straight year after dispatching the Minnesota Golden Gophers 31-21 at TCF Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday.
Behind its seventh combination of starters on the offensive line in 12 games, the Badgers regained, albeit for one game, its old form in physically manhandling the Minnesota front seven for the first half -- gaining 199 yards on 35 carries in the first two quarters on way to a 257-yard performance.
The defense contained the Gophers offense, forcing five turnovers which translated to 17 Wisconsin points.
THE GOOD: What did the Badgers do well?
Neal Olson: Let's hope the first half was a preview of what be expected from offensive line next season. This was the performance Badger fans have been waiting for all season. Admittedly, the Minnesota defense was not as formidable as say, Alabama, but 257 rushing yards was nice to see. Especially fresh off the abysmal -26 yards(not a misprint) rushing total against Northwestern last week. Needless to say, the offensive line dominance in the running game was a major factor in keeping the Axe for the 12 straight year.
Maxwell Brusky: Ran the damn ball! In the first half anyway, it appeared the offensive line combination featuring redshirt freshman Beau Benzschawel shifted from right tackle to right guard and redshirt freshman Jacob Maxwell inserted at right tackle (Wisconsin's seventh, in order to accommodate yet another injury on the line, this to Walker Williams - who may have been a weak link in the second half of the season) may have been the right one. The line paved the way for 199 first half yards and was instrumental in staking the Badgers to a 28-14 halftime lead, which would hold up until the end. The second half, including a first down-less final ten minutes that was much more tense than necessary, was a different story even though redshirt junior running back Dare Ogunbowale finished with a career best 155 yards on 33 carries (and a healthy Taiwan Deal added 90 more on 22 carries). By halftime, the Badgers' offense of most of the season looked, unexpectedly, like merely a sour memory.
Kyle Vos: Since the running game has been covered, I'll go with something else the Badgers struggled with prior to the Minnesota game: the turnover margin. Saturday was the third time in conference play that the Badgers won the turnover battle, and the first time since the Miami (Ohio) game in week two that the defense had more than two takeaways. None of the turnovers were particularly impressive plays, but they were plays that the defense has struggled to take advantage of. Redshirt senior cornerback Darius Hillary hopped on a couple loose balls, redshirt senior safety Tanner McEvoy secured a couple errant passes, and senior outside lineacker Joe Schobert got in on the running action with his long interception return that was unfortunately called back.
Owen Riese: Honestly, the offensive line was awesome. Benzschawel looked like a natural at right guard, something Williams hasn't looked like all year. It made the right side a lot more athletic, as Maxwell is a much better athlete than Williams, so both spots were upgraded in that respect. Minnesota has a pretty decent defensive front, and they were more than neutralized. It was nice to see the Badgers offensive line dictate the line of scrimmage. It's certainly an encouraging sign moving forward.
THE BAD: What didn't?
Neal: Welp, redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave is now tied with Brooks Bollinger for all time career wins at 30. But his 9-of-17 passing for 79 yards and one egregious interception will likely not end up in the records books. With the running game clicking in what seemed like the first time all season, the passing game left pretty much everything to be desired. As has been the case for some time now, we know what we're going to get with Stave. Perhaps a month of bowl prep with a healthy stable of receivers can get everything back on track and send the winningest quarterback in Wisconsin history off into the sunset without any more interceptions.
Maxwell: Hard to fault anyone in a solid team win like this was, but the play calling on offense was a bit suspect in certain key stretches of the game. The opening drive pick six thrown by Joel Stave was thrown by him, but it was if Gophers cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun had a coaches' headset and anticipated the throw perfectly. Nothing about play -- the call, the formation, or the personnel - was subtle or sly and the result gave Minnesota a 7-0 lead right out of the chute. The Badgers were fortunate that it didn't set the tone for the day. During the game's home stretch, wherein the Badgers repeatedly put their defense back on the field, a play action pass or two might have put the Gophers away a bit more comfortably. These complaints turned out to be nit-picks against the overall arc of the game, but if anything didn't go well for Wisconsin on this day, that's probably it.
Kyle: Once again, to shine light on something else, I'll say the special teams. Overall, I don't think the unit played poorly, but there were a few causes for concern. Drew Meyer had a couple nice punts, but also a couple that went into the end zone and one that shanked out of bounds. Minnesota's first few kickoff returns put the Gophers in good field position and would've busted wide open if Andrew Endicott wasn't the kicking version of Bobby Boucher. A successful Rafael Gaglianone field goal late in the third quarter was brought back after a holding call, and the ensuing attempt was missed. Earlier in the quarter, head coach Paul Chryst contemplated leaving his sputtering passing offense on the field to convert a 4th-and-13 instead of immediately trotting his field goal unit out for a 46-yard attempt. There's a lot to clean up in this facet of the game.
Owen: Kyle said it, but the special teams leave a lot to be desired. Other than the punt coverage, all facets could use work. Gaglianone has been good for about a miss per game. UW's kick return yardage, other than the return touchdown vs Maryland, is among the worst in the country. Also, as Kyle said, the kickoff return unit at times provided other teams with pretty good field position. It's often negated by the defense, but that doesn't let them off of the hook.
TEAM MVP: Who earns the honors?
Neal: Once again, Schobert gets the nod here. His forced fumble and interception helped the Badgers take control of a close game. Schobert's career has been from relatively unheralded high school recruit and walk-on, to one of the most productive linebackers in the country this season really is the embodiment of Wisconsin football. If nothing else he gets MVP strictly for this amazingly creepy shot in the Watt family Axe photo.
Maxwell: I'll agree with Neal as to Schobert, who should probably get the honor for the team's season MVP. There were several standout individual performances in this game, mostly on defense (Michael Caputo, T.J. Watt, Darius Hillary), but Schobert's stood out the most.
Kyle: Alex Erickson. Where would this passing offense be without the redshirt senior wide receiver? His six catches for 66 yards won't catch anyone's eye, but a couple other numbers should. Five of those catches were on third down and resulted in a first down, and only 13 passing yards went elsewhere. The running game stole the show on offense, but Erickson was the one player that proved his value more than any other.
Owen: Darius Hillary is a name that hasn't been mentioned, but quietly had a big game. He blanketed KJ Maye, Minnesota's top receiving target all day, and he recovered two fumbles. He didn't have a bunch of tackles or and interceptions, but the Minnesota passing game struggles as a general rule, especially when their only legitimate option is taken away.
BOWL SELECTION: Where do you think the Badgers will land and why?
Neal: Nearly all signs point to Wisconsin heading west to the Holiday Bowl against a Pac 12 team. Honestly, it's a nice change from playing a SEC team in Tampa/Orlando and the tired story line of plodding Big Ten versus powerhouse SEC. Playing a traditional blue blood like USC or UCLA is always fun. Or it would be fun to see how defensive coordinator Dave Aranda does with this defense against the Air Raid offense in Washington State. Clearly, I am ready for some non-SEC bowl matchups.
Maxwell: The "loss" against Northwestern (yep, still pissed) may have taken the Badgers out of contention for a New Year's Six bowl game, but that was probably still a long shot. Even if Jazz Peavy's touchdown stood, it was highly unlikely that the Big Ten would send Wisconsin back to Florida for a third straight year. With the Badgers and Michigan at 9-3, and four conference teams at 10-2 or better, the Citrus or Outback are now certainly out of the picture, leaving the Holiday in San Diego as a virtual lock. Again agreeing with Neal, a Pac-12 matchup is intriguing and should be fun to watch. Not only should there be no shame in the assignment, the game and the circumstances may turn out to be better anyway, in much the same way the Champs Sports in 2009 turned out to be.
Kyle: The others have handled this one pretty well; all signs point to the Holiday Bowl. This might seem lackluster, and, let's face it, it kind of is, but the Pac-12 has a lot of very fun options, as Neal pointed out. It sounds like the two likely options are Utah and Washington State, both of which should provide the Badgers with a good test.
Owen: Everyone else has said it, the Holiday Bowl is the likely destination. It'll be a nice change of pace to go to San Diego rather than Tampa, Orlando, or Pasadena (not like I'm complaining). The Pac-12 is usually an interesting conference, with some non-traditional matchups. Washington State would be a very intriguing matchup, as would Utah, despite their polar opposite offensive philosophies.