MADISON — What once was a liability for two quarters became a strength once again for the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers in their 31-17 win over Minnesota on Saturday night.
A defense that was gashed for 226 yards in the first half only allowed a quarter of that in the final 30 minutes, and opportunities from the arm of Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner were cashed in in the final period.
Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten), with the victory, won the Big Ten West division title outright and will face No. 7 Penn State next Saturday night in Indianapolis for the conference championship.
This team is resilient
Down by 10 at half and being outplayed by your rival, Wisconsin began making plays.
Their first series of the third quarter ended with a field goal to bring it back to within a touchdown. Though the Gophers were driving in that same frame, senior safety Leo Musso snagged a Leidner pass in the end zone to thwart that scoring opportunity. They were still down by a touchdown entering the final quarter.
Then the interceptions reigned down a plenty, which completely turned the tide. The Gophers, which gained almost 230 yards in the first half, gained only 60 more in the final two quarters. The defense clamped down, pressured Leidner into an uncomfortable state with five sacks and four quarterback hurries altogether, and the offense did its job in taking advantage of the opportunities in the final 15 minutes.
The Badgers can capitalize off of turnovers, and it won them a second consecutive game
Fourteen more points were off of turnovers. Shelton’s interception and return led to Corey Clement’s first of two touchdowns.
After Wisconsin took the lead with Jazz Peavy’s 71-yard jet sweep setting up Clement’s second score, inside linebacker Leon Jacobs picked off and returned the ball 25 yards for yet another prime scoring opportunity. The very next play, senior running back Dare Ogunbowale scored from eight yards out to put the game essentially out of reach.
In the past two weeks, one quarter’s worth of takeaways has sealed a win. Twenty-eight points have been scored off of turnovers in the wins at Purdue and against Minnesota.
This team, especially its seniors, is special
Who would have thought the Badgers would be playing in Indianapolis with a chance of the College Football Playoff at the beginning of the 2016 season? So much talk about the tough schedule, the fact Dave Aranda left for the LSU defensive coordinator position, and questions at various positions like quarterback and safety -- yet Wisconsin’s a 10-win team (in the regular season) with a chance to be a playoff team.
Both running back Corey Clement and outside linebacker Vince Biegel came back for their final year of eligibility and have been significant contributors this season. Ogunbowale, though his role’s decreased with Clement and an emerging Bradrick Shaw receiving more carries, has continually shown he can be called upon to produce. Shelton, with four interceptions this year, showed he could lead a secondary — and his fellow senior in the defensive backfield in Musso, have combined for nine interceptions in 2016.
Along with Robert Wheelwright, Andrew Endicott and Co., the senior class may be small in numbers -- but they’re potent.
With the Michigan and Nebraska losses, along with Washington and Ohio State winning, the chances for a College Football Playoff berth are uneasy at the moment. Yet Wisconsin needs to focus on Penn State first and foremost. Win out, and let the chips fall where they may.
Either way, this is a season no one expected, except maybe the players who believed in themselves.