MINNEAPOLIS — When it comes to big time rivalry games everyone always loves to talk about the referees and what effect they had on the game. Well, that’s all anyone could talk about during most of the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe between the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers (8-4 overall, 6-3 Big Ten) and the Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4 overall, 6-3 Big Ten).
There were multiple bad calls, that went either way, which made the first half of the game a real slog. The Badgers went into the break with a 10-6 lead thanks in large part to a tipped pass by Noah Burks that was intercepted by Scott Nelson and returned 25 yards for a touchdown at the beginning of the second quarter.
Both offenses were able to move the ball fairly well in the first half but it only resulted in three field goals, two for the Gophers and one for Wisconsin. Each team only had three real drives (Minnesota had two one-play drives, one that ended in the UW touchdown and one that ended the first half) as the offenses, with the help of the officials, methodically moved down the field.
There were few real standouts in the first half, outside of Leo Chenal and his 10 tackles, but Graham Mertz looked ok, completing a high percentage of passes, and even had one deep pass dropped by Kendric Pryor.
The second half started dreadfully for Wisconsin as Mertz threw a pick on the opening possession (which looked like it might have been joint possession but who even knows with these refs) and the Gophers scored a touchdown two plays later. The Badgers scored a field goal to tie it at 13 but then the Gophers marched 74 yards in just under two minutes and scored on a Tanner Morgan pass to Chris Autman-Bell.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter Wisconsin was driving, but stalled out at the 30-yard line and instead of going for it on 4th and 10, Paul Chryst elected to kick a 48-yard field goal which doinked off the crossbar.
Minnesota got the ball back and used a big play action pass to a late released tight end to drive the ball into Wisconsin territory where they bled time off the clock and ended up kicking a 36-yard field, Matthew Trickett’s third make of the day.
Since the opening play of the game, where Collin Wilder was ejected for a targeting call that wasn’t really his fault, it seemed like Wisconsin could not find their footing at Huntington Bank Stadium. They had two more drives to try and score but just could not move the ball consistently on those drives, or all game.
It was, quite frankly, a return to early season Wisconsin football. Unimaginative, cowardly play-calling from the coaching staff and lackadaisical execution by the players. Most of this was on the offensive side of the ball, but the defense kept blitzing even when it wasn’t getting home.
With the loss, the Badgers lose Paul Bunyan’s Axe, a Big Ten West division title and a berth in the Big Ten title game. A brutal showing by the team in their most important game of the season.