MADISON — Fans may “feel” the sting of the Wisconsin Badgers’ 37–15 loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday, but imagine being a fourth or fifth-year senior at a program that held a 14-game winning streak before losing Paul Bunyan’s Axe on your home turf.
The previous 14 senior classes earned the opportunity to chop the goal posts after winning their storied rivalry matchup vs. the Gophers. This year’s set of departing Badgers did not.
“It’s tragic,” junior wide receiver A.J. Taylor said. “When you know how much [the seniors] put into the games. You know how much they put into just Wisconsin football. It hurts. My heart hurts for them. Shoot, I just got done crying for them. I can’t even look D’Cota [Dixon] in the eyes right now, I’m so hurt right now. You just want to do everything you can to make it better, so we want to get out this bowl game and get a win no matter where we are.”
After the game, a couple of those seniors looked back and channeled memories of those who built the streak before them.
“More so just kind of, not embarrassed, but you feel like you kind of let the guys down that were here before you,” redshirt senior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “That’s really tough to think about. I never would in a million years thought that we would lose this game, but we did, so it’s tough.”
When asked how long this loss and not being able to chop those posts would stick with him, senior safety D’Cota Dixon was blunt.
“Forever. That’s a legacy right there,” Dixon said. “I’m disappointed. Let down the guys that were in front me. Warren Herring, Mike Caputo, Leo [Musso]. Great guys, great leaders that were great examples for myself when I was young. There’s no excuses. There’s nothing to talk about. It’s plain and simple—they were the better team tonight. They got the Axe. It’s what it is.”
Defensively, Wisconsin (7–5, 5–4 Big Ten) only allowed 325 yards to Minnesota (6–6, 3–6), but 201 of those yards came on the ground.
Gopher running backs gashed and pummeled their way for yardage all game long. Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for 121 yards on 26 carries with a touchdown, and Bryce Williams gained 50 yards on eight carries with two scores.
Minnesota only converted five of 14 third downs, but moved the chains on four of the six third downs when it had between one to four yards to go. The Gophers averaged 4.3 yards per carry on the day, but there was also a fourth-quarter drive that ate up over nine minutes and kept the Badgers’ defense on the field. P.J. Fleck’s offense converted three of four third downs, with six yards the longest distance to go.
“I thought once we got them to third-and-long, we were able to do what we wanted to do and get pressure on them and cover guys, but we just didn’t do that often,” Edwards said. “I think that’s the hard part. I think on first and second down, I think we just lost, quite frankly. It’s kind of what it comes down to.”
Offensively, Wisconsin coughed up the ball four times—three on interceptions credited to Alex Hornibrook, along with a lost fumble by the redshirt junior. The Badgers gained 359 yards on the day, but were only 4-of-11 on third-down conversions and also hurt themselves with dropped passes in key times.
“Had to make more plays and then you can’t turn the ball over that many times,” redshirt senior Michael Deiter said. “We had it. We were driving and I thought everything was clicking well. Just some stuff where we hurt ourselves. Then can’t turn the ball over, and then you have to make plays to win football games against teams that are playing well, and we just didn’t make enough.”
Wisconsin’s offense has been hot and cold through 12 games. It can gain traction, as seen in the triple-overtime win over Purdue, but it also struggled against Northwestern, Penn State, Michigan, and now Minnesota.
“I think it’s been, as an offensive player, I could say that it’s been turnovers and just not executing and not making enough plays like we can,” Deiter said. “I mean, you can a look at the second half of the Purdue game, we’re executing, people are making plays, cutting it loose, no turnovers, it’s all clean. We look really good, but then you turn the ball over, dropping stuff, fumbles, all that. You’re never going to get the momentum you want in the game as an offense to find a rhythm like we like to do, and it just hurt us.”
Now with five losses on the year, Edwards said the Badgers had not put together a complete game.
“At times, there’s just been just mental errors and mental mistakes and things that you can’t do at this level of football,” Edwards said. “Personally, I felt I did that a lot this year, and let a lot of guys down in that way, but we got to do whatever we can do to rally the troops and finish the bowl game out right.”
Though the Axe is gone and a season once primed with heavy expectations has not gone the way many expected, Deiter and Dixon believe the team can bounce back.
“I think it’ll be easy to regroup. This will fade away,” Deiter said. “As a team, you got to be ready to go win a bowl game. As a senior class we’ve never lost one, so that’s kind of cool, and there’s, I guess, a little added thing because as a senior you kind of want to go out. It would be cool to go 5–0 in bowl games. That’d be cool, and that’s the plan. We’ll regroup, we’ll find out where we’re going, and we’ll be excited to go play and we’re going to prepare to win whatever bowl game we get.”
For that matter, Deiter believes Saturday’s loss will be “quite a learning lesson.”
“If I had another year, it would be unreal motivation getting ready for next season, getting that Axe back,” Deiter said. “That obviously’s going to be a priority, and I think walking past that case in the locker room any underclassmen’s going to see it and it’s going to be unreal motivation for those guys to get ready for next year. And I think the goal will be to get it back, and they will.”
Looking to next season, Dixon believes the motivation for the Badgers following him will be to not take opportunities for granted.
“That’s what it’s always been about to me personally,” Dixon said. “Opportunities, being able to play this game, not even just the Axe. I mean, it’s other games, too. This season wasn’t successful, at all, but like I said, there will be a lot of good that comes from this. There will be a lot of good. These young guys got a lot of experience now. They got some experience. Guys that were thrown into the fire that weren’t ready are ready. They will be ready. They don’t have a choice, so I think there will be a lot of good that comes out of this for the program as a whole.
“But in terms of the Axe and Minnesota, it stings, and I guarantee they’ll remember this game going into the offseason.”
Lending more perspective, Dixon said this season has not been a failure.
“You got a lot of young guys playing this year, we got a lot of injuries, and I think we made the most of what we could with the opportunities with the guys we had, and I’m proud of them,” Dixon said. “I’m proud of every single one of these guys. Nobody has anything to hold their head down about. We lost the football game tonight. That’s just life. You’re going to go through struggles. You’re going to go through adversity. Triumph and bounce back, and we’re going to bounce back this next game.”
That motivation to regain the Axe will likely be prevalent for those returning to the program next year. Sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor admitted he watched “a little bit” of Minnesota celebrating after the game.
“Tried to make sure some of the freshmen watched them too,” Taylor said. “I know a lot of older guys were telling the freshmen and younger guys to watch, to make sure they remember that feeling to use that to help get it back next year.”
Those who will move on from UW after this season will not have that opportunity. When asked how long the fact that they did not chop down the goal posts will stick with them, two starting redshirt senior linemen provided nearly identical answers.
“Probably my whole life, honestly,” Beau Benzschawel said. “Yeah, flat out.”
“Probably the rest of my life,” Deiter said.
A reporter followed up with Deiter: It means that much to you?