MADISON — To retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe—and keep its College Football Playoff aspirations intact—the Wisconsin football team had to keep on chopping.
Led by a gritty defense and opportunistic offense, they did just that.
Shaking off a sluggish start, the No. 6 Badgers came alive in the fourth quarter, rattling off 21 of their 24 unanswered points after the Camp Randall faithful jumped around, and defeated the Minnesota Golden Gophers 31-17 at Camp Randall on Saturday.
You can go ahead and make that a baker’s dozen: The Axe will remain east of the Mississippi River for the 13th consecutive year.
Winners of the Big Ten West division, Wisconsin moves onto the Big Ten Championship against Penn State on Saturday in Indianapolis. A win could put the Badgers in position to be one of the four team’s selected for the Playoff.
Pitted against the rival Gophers on Senior Day with those postseason hopes hanging in the balance, the Badgers had every reason to come out as the passionate side. Instead, the Gophers dominated the first half and led 17-7 at halftime on a pair of touchdowns -- one passing, one rushing -- by quarterback Mitch Leidner.
It wasn’t until the sun had set over Madison that Wisconsin came alive.
But all that mattered was that they came alive.
Cornerback Sojourn Shelton had the first of a series of game-changing plays, jumping a Leidner pass for an interception near midfield with the Badgers trailing 17-10 and over 13 minutes remaining. The senior returned the ball 40 yards to the Gophers’ 19-yard line, setting up a two-yard touchdown run by running back Corey Clement.
Despite a Clement fumble in Gophers’ territory on the next drive, the Wisconsin defense stepped up once again and forced a punt. After Minnesota put up 226 yards in the first half en route to a 10-point lead, the Badgers’ unit allowed only 60 second-half yards and intercepted Leidner four times.
The next game-breaking play came from wide receiver Jazz Peavy on a 71-yard jet sweep to set up Clement’s game-winning touchdown run from two yards out and 6:42 remaining.
Linebacker Leon Jacobs’ interception on the ensuing Gophers drive set up a Dare Ogunbowale eight-yard touchdown run to cap the scoring. Shelton would add his second interception of the game on the next drive to seal the game.
Quarterback Bart Houston stepped up after starter Alex Hornibrook was knocked out of the game, going 9-for-14 and 123 yards. Clement rushed for 100 yards on 26 carries, eclipsing the 100-yard mark for the fifth straight game and seventh out of his last eight.
Minnesota received the opening kick and drove 72 yards, capping the with a 21-yard field goal by Emmit Carpenter. Wisconsin gained the lead on a one-yard touchdown run by fullback Alec Ingold with 9:19 to play in the second quarter, but the lead lasted only seconds.
KiAnte Hardin returned the ensuing kickoff to the Wisconsin 13 yard-line and Leidner threw a touchdown strike to wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky on the next snap.
Leidner capped off a seven-play, 68-yard drive to close out the half with a five-yard scamper to put the Gophers up 17-7 heading into intermission.
A 33-yard Andrew Endicott field goal drew Wisconsin within one score to open the second half, but Minnesota responded with a drive into the red zone. On third down from the 13-yard line, safety Leo Musso read Leidner for an interception in the end zone to keep the Gophers off the board.