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Wisconsin’s seniors save, savor win over Minnesota

On Senior Day, the Badgers’ graduating class stepped up. That shouldn’t come as a surprise.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON — As the Camp Randall speakers blared House of Pain during the break in action at the end of the third quarter and the 77,216 faithful erupted into their usual frenzy, Wisconsin linebacker TJ Watt offered some advice to fellow linebacker Vince Biegel.

“It’s your last Jump Around. Enjoy it.” Watt told Biegel, a senior playing in his last home game.

He was preaching to the choir.

Biegel, in many ways the heart and soul of a standout defense composed in its core of heart and soul, stood on the sidelines and soaked up the moment. The Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., native looked out at the sea of red and the clamor of “Jump Around” rang through his ears.

“It was funny, because I was just taking it in,” Biegel said. “I’m like, ‘This is my last Jump Around.’ I was kind of just breathing it in. It was a special moment.”

Everything about the moment made it special, spare one: It was Senior Day in Madison, and the No. 6 Badgers trailed rival Minnesota, 17-10, with 15 minutes to play.

With College Football Playoff aspirations, 12 consecutive wins over the Gophers and Paul Bunyan’s Axe on the line, Biegel and his fellow seniors were not going to let this one slip away.

“Seniors said, ‘Not on our watch. We’re not going to lose this game and have them take the Axe,’” senior running back Corey Clement said. “It was definitely one of those things, you have to have pride within your play. We have to know that Paul Bunyan’s Axe is definitely staying here in Madison, so whatever we gotta do, we gotta get the gas going.”

Clement scored the game-tying and go-ahead touchdowns, cornerback Sojourn Shelton made two game-changing interceptions and running back Dare Ogunbowale punched in the victory-sealing score to lead a cast of seniors that sparked a 31-17 comeback victory for the Badgers.

“That’s big time,” Clement said of his senior class. “It’s funny, it’s like a coincidence. Everybody makes their last mark at Camp Randall. I was happy to be a part of it and happy we faced adversity. That made the game much better.”

An uncharacteristic performance from the Wisconsin defense and a sloppy offensive output had the Badgers in a 17-7 hole at halftime. The defense entered the game ranked eighth in the nation in yards against (292.5) and averaging just 13.4 points per game against, but gave up 226 yards and 17 points over the first two quarters.

“Our defense has a lot of pride,” Biegel said. “When we were running back into the locker room, I think to myself, ‘This is very uncharacteristic of our defense.’ And that really lit a fuse under us to go out there, play a great second half and put our offense in good field position.”

Senior safety Leo Musso grabbed the Axe and delivered a locker room speech at halftime to remember, and Wisconsin reversed its course in the second half by dominating the Gophers.

“Halftime, the legendary speech comes from Leo Musso,” senior quarterback Bart Houston said. “He grabbed the Axe. ‘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 second half speaks for itself.”

Musso followed up his words with an interception of Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner’s pass in the Wisconsin end zone in the third quarter with the Badgers down 17-10.

“[I] Told them straight up that was the worst half of football that we’ve played as a team,” Musso said. “And it was good that we came out here and got the win. It was awesome, from playing here in high school and growing up here, more than anything, it was very special to me. It’s something that I take a lot of pride in, so it was good that we got the win.”

The Badgers still trailed 17-10 early in the fourth quarter when Shelton left his mark. On third-and-15 from his own 48, Leidner faced pressure and looked for a back-shoulder throw to Eric Carter on the sideline. Carter, however, darted downfield and, nplaying soft coverage, the Shelton read the throw the entire time. The Badgers cornerback jumped the throw and returned the ball 40 yards to Gophers’ 19-yard line.

A 16-yard Houston strike to senior receiver Rob Wheelwright set up a two-yard run by Clement to tie the game at 17 with 13:15 left.

After the Wisconsin defense forced a stop, the Badgers threatened once again until a Clement fumble turned the ball over in Minnesota territory with 10:09 remaining in regulation.

“It felt like I let the team down,” Clement said. “And definitely, as a senior, you have to worry about the next play. It happens to everybody, so I took it as if ‘What am I going to do the next play?’ It sucked, it felt like the air went out of the stadium. Next possession, I had to make the most of it and guys said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and that made me feel a lot better.”

Clement did make the most of his next opportunity, but only after receiver Jazz Peavy delivered a 71-yard run on an end around to put the Badgers at the five-yard line. Two plays later, Clement found the end zone to put Wisconsin up 24-17.

An interception by Leon Jacobs on the ensuing possession set up Ogunbowale’s eight-yard touchdown run, and Shelton put the icing on the cake with an over-the-shoulder interception down the field just two plays later.

In the second half, Wisconsin’s defense allowed just 60 yards. Following the Musso interception, that total was just 29 yards.

Largely because of that effort, the Axe will remain east of the Mississippi River for the 13th consecutive year.

“It’s indescribable,” Musso said. “That’s one of the goals we had this year, was to win all of our trophy games. Playing our last game in Camp Randall--there’s a lot of things that this game meant for us. It was good that we got to carry on the legacy and the tradition of the Axe. People from Wisconsin understand how important this game is.”

In the media room following the win, Biegel, who added half of a sack and a quarterback hurry in the fourth quarter, had another chance to reflect on his time at Camp Randall.

Watt wasn’t around this time, but, once again, the moment provided enough emotion for the captain.

“It really has gone by fast,” Biegel said. “The ups and downs of my career have real.y turned me into the man I am today. I met amazing coaches here, I met amazing people here that I’ll be friends with the rest of my life.

“The University of Wisconsin is a very special place. If I had to be a high school kid all over again and commit to a university, I’d pick Wisconsin every time.”