Wisconsin (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) held Michigan to just 234 yards of offense on the afternoon and received a spark from its offense after a Wolverines’ turnover.
Now, AXE WEEK COMETH with a Minnesota Gophers (5-6, 2-6) squad looking to become bowl eligible, and maybe, just more importantly, trying to bring home Paul Bunyan’s Axe and derail any College Football Playoff talk for Bucky.
Our writers break down the good, the bad, and what’s next for Wisconsin.
THE GOOD: What went well on Saturday?
Owen Riese: Wisconsin was able to contain one of the more potent rushing attacks in the country to well under 100 yards on the day on over 30 carries [editor’s note: 58 to be exact]. It made the Wolverines one dimensional, which played into the hands of the Badgers. Also, though Hornibrook didn’t play his best game, he was able to push the ball down the field effectively enough to make Michigan take the second safety out of the box, and dig out some much needed rushing yards late in the game.
Ryan Mellenthin: Wisconsin’s defense was suffocating against the Wolverines, only allowing 234 yards and limiting Michigan to five of 17 on third down. Coming into the game, Michigan had scored at least 33 points in three consecutive games.
Kevin O’Connell: Faced with their first legitimate challenge of the season, it was impressive to see Wisconsin close out the Wolverines in a tightly contested, physical game. Led by Hornibrook, the Badgers put together two 60-plus yard plus touchdown drives after falling behind 10-7 midway through the third quarter. Hornibrook and the rest of the offense made big plays in big moments, after struggling mightily in the first half. For me, the biggest takeaway from this game was the way Wisconsin’s offense rose to the occasion, with their season on line, against one of the best defenses in the Big Ten.
THE BAD: Where did Wisconsin falter against the Wolverines?
Owen: In the first half the Badgers struggled to muster much of anything on offense. Michigan dominated the line of scrimmage, and had outplayed the Badgers. A punt return touchdown was the only reason the Badgers were on the scoreboard before the middle of the 3rd quarter, and that’s not a recipe for success against Ohio State in the B1G Championship Game, or any other team they play this season.
Ryan: The Badgers’ offense sputtered in the first half. Wisconsin had five offensive drives, totaling 99 yards and they punted five times. Three of Wisconsin’s first half drives were three-and-outs. Michigan controlled the line and harassed Hornibrook throughout the first 30 minutes.
Kevin: The Badgers continued their slow starts against the Wolverines. The offense did next to nothing in the first half and Wisconsin was losing the battle in the trenches for the first time all year. They turned it around after the break, but I’m nervous that Wisconsin’s tendency for sluggish first halves could catch up to them in the Big Ten Championship and beyond.
GAME BALLS: Who gets them?
Owen: A.J. Taylor, T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. Taylor (three catches, 79 yards, one touchdown) was the spark plug the offense really needed, and Edwards and Connelly both dominated inside. With Michigan unable to run outside due to the three safety packages Leonhard employed, the Wolverines couldn’t run effectively.
Ryan: Nick Nelson. In a first half that was less than productive offensively, Nelson put Wisconsin on the board with his 50-yard punt return for a touchdown. Nelson also broke up two key passes, which gives him 20 pass break ups on the season, which leads the NCAA.
Kevin: T.J. Edwards. The junior linebacker has played at an All-American level for much of the season and finished with 11 total tackles and a sack against the Wolverines. Edwards was flying around the field on Saturday and was a big reason why Michigan was only able to run for 58 yards in the game.
UP NEXT: AXE WEEK! Two part question 1) Favorite memory from the rivalry, and 2) What does Wisconsin have to do to keep the Axe for the 14th straight time?
Owen: I’m only 24 but probably the Jonathan Casillas punt block touchdown is my favorite memory, or Melvin Gordon III breaking Ron Dayne’s single-season rushing record in 2014 against the Gophers. Minnesota hasn’t showed the ability to consistently score points this season, mostly due to quarterback play. If Wisconsin can stop Minnesota’s run game, they might shut the Gophers out.
Ryan: In 2002, Wisconsin came into their annual matchup with the Gophers, losing six of seven. The Badgers trailed early in the fourth quarter, 31-28. Current Badgers defensive coordinator, intercepted two passes in the game, giving him 10 on the season, setting a school record. Running back Anthony Davis rushed for five touchdowns and Wisconsin won back the axe, 49-31. I was at the game, sitting behind the Minnesota bench and one of my favorite sights, was seeing the entire team sprint across the field to the Gopher bench, to take the axe back. Wisconsin can keep the axe by continuing what they have done on defense all season, control the run game on defense and have a strong showing on the ground on offense.
Kevin: My favorite memory from this rivalry was my final game as an undergrad in 2014. The Gophers were shockingly ranked (22nd) and the winner of the game would go on to play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. The Badgers won 34-24, Melvin Gordon broke Ron Dayne’s Big Ten and school rushing record, and I got to see UW win one last time at Camp Randall as a student. Pretty cool day.
As for this year’s installation, Wisconsin will need to be focused and ready to go against a Minnesota team that will treat this game like their Super Bowl. The Gophers could be in real trouble if they fall behind early and are forced to throw, as their passing offense ranks 120th in the country.