MADISON — It was an uncharacteristic first two quarters for the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers defensively on Saturday night, but a strong second half turned the tide to retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe yet again.
For a defense surrendering only 292.5 yards per game coming in, eighth-best in the nation, Minnesota gained 226 yards heading into halftime. They allowed 17 points in two quarters when they allowed a shade over 13 points per contest during the season and 115 yards rushing despite holding opponents to 98.3 through 11 games.
That included some big runs by Minnesota senior quarterback Mitch Leidner, who gained 55 yards — including a 32-yard gallop off of a read-option on the Gophers’ first scoring drive.
Then, a switch came on, and the attacking, disciplined defense Wisconsin fans have seen all season came alive in the second half — forcing four Minnesota turnovers and holding the Gophers to 60 total yards, and more importantly, no points in their 31-17 win on Senior Day.
So what caused the temporary lapse in what’s been a dominant precedent set?
“We were too uptight trying to do too much individually and as a team, not swarming to the ball,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “I feel like we emphasized at halftime to ‘Have fun — this is fun,’ and to fly to the ball and get back to Wisconsin football defensively. I feel like we did a great job responding, and just you saw it — guys were flying around the ball, having fun, making plays, and that’s who we are.”
UW (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) rebounded to hold Minnesota starting in that third quarter, but during halftime, there was a certain speech by senior safety Leo Musso that may become legendary status for years to come.
Watt mentioned he addressed the defensive squad as a whole, but Musso — the Waunakee native a stone’s throw from Madison — addressed the team.
“He grabbed the Axe,” redshirt senior quarterback Bart Houston said when asked what Musso said. “‘It doesn’t matter the outside noise. Who cares about senior night? Who cares about the Big Ten West? It’s only about this Axe, which symbolizes us. Coming in, finishing the job that we’re supposed to.’”
The redshirt junior downplayed his words to his fellow players.
“I don’t know if it was the most tremendous halftime speech,” Musso said. “Just tell everyone to relax, forget what’s going on. The Senior Day — forget that it’s our last home game. Just go out there and play.
“Told them straight up that was the worst half of football that we’ve played as a team, and it was good that we came out here and got the win.”
After Wisconsin’s offense made it a 10-point game with Andrew Endicott’s 33-yard field goal to start the third quarter, its defense made a crucial stop after allowing the Gophers to drive 61 yards in seven plays.
The Badgers gave up five plays of over 15 yards in the first half, and a defense that had only given up 13 touchdowns in 11 games allowed two in those first 30 minutes (one rushing and one receiving). The Gophers’ opening drive appeared promising yet again, with completions of 22 and 25 yards, and it appeared to be Minnesota’s night — quite possibly the first time in 13 seasons it could retrieve Paul Bunyan’s Axe from Madison.
But Musso had other plans.
After missing an interception that ended up being a 25-yard completion to running back Rodney Smith, Musso atoned for it three plays later. From Wisconsin’s 14-yard line, Leidner threw a pass to the right corner of the north end zone. Musso read it perfectly for the pick that stymied any points in favor of the Gophers.
Wisconsin only allowed 29 yards on 17 plays after that initial second half possession by Minnesota, and a combination of three more interceptions and three additional sacks suffocated any further opportunities.
“Well, they were all momentum swings, especially in a close ballgame. The first one hurt the most because we probably had three points and could have kept it up by 10 points and kept them to two scores,” Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys said.
“That one put them in the red zone and took points off the board from us. They’re all big. They give the crowd and the team energy, and that’s why good teams don’t turn the ball over.”
Still trailing 17-10 heading into the fourth quarter, Minnesota started on Wisconsin’s 47-yard line. A Watt sack on second down forced a 3rd-and-15, and Leidner threw a pass directly into the hands of cornerback Sojourn Shelton.
The senior returned it 40 yards to the Minnesota 19, and UW tied it up at 17 on Corey Clement’s two-yard touchdown run.
“I mean, all week, one of their go-to routes was comebacks,” Shelton said. “I had seen the quarterback — he dropped back, and on that third step he was ready to fire it, and the receiver wasn’t ready.
“I had seen his hand coming off the ball, so I just took a risk. If it was a double risk, y’all would be talking bad about me, but I just took a risk and went for it. I think that’s just comes from the confidence that Coach [Jim] Leonhard has in me. He always tells me if I see something -- just play you and go do it and go get it.”
The defense held Minnesota the next two drives to 18 yards total, forcing two punts. With Wisconsin taking a 24-17 lead after Clement’s second touchdown, two straight incompletions from Leidner led to another 3rd-and-long opportunity.
Minnesota’s quarterback completed that pass, but once again into the hands of a Wisconsin defender. Redshirt junior inside linebacker Leon Jacobs picked it off and returned it to the Gophers eight-yard line, and as UW’s offense did with Shelton’s interception, they took advantage of the short field. Redshirt senior running back Dare Ogunbowale found his way into the end zone for a 14-point advantage.
Leidner, who completed 7-of-12 passes for 111 yards in the first half, ended the game 9-of-26 for 158 yards with the one touchdown pass and four interceptions. His last errant throw ended up in the hands of Shelton once again on their second-to-last offensive series.
It’s the second time in the last three games that the Badgers have intercepted four passes. With 21 on the season, including 11 in the last three games, it’s the most the program’s had since recording 22 back in 2002.
In the second half altogether, UW only allowed 13 yards rushing and one of eight third-down conversions. Despite a couple of pass interference penalties against the secondary in the final two quarters, defensive coordinator’s Justin Wilcox’s unit — the strength of this 2016 team — stepped up and delivered what was a performance that’s become the set standard this season.
“Minnesota was driving on us, our offense was backed up in our own end zone and we weren’t winning at the line of scrimmage, either,” outside linebacker Vince Biegel said, who recorded eight tackles and two half sacks in the victory.
“For us to put that first half aside and go out there and play great Wisconsin Badgers defense and football, that’s what we did. Credit to our guys.”
B5Q’s Curtis Hogg contributed to this article.