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.
However, it is important to note, the officiating is nowhere near the main reason that the Badgers lost to the Gophers 23-13 on Saturday evening at Huntington Bank Stadium. Wisconsin had failures on multiple levels that led to the disheartening defeat which took Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the Big Ten West title and a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game away from them.
When asked what he, a sixth year senior who came back for another chance at a conference title, would say to the young players on the team, OLB Noah Burks said, “don’t forget this feeling. There’s nothing worse than this.”
The Badgers went into the break with a 10-6 lead thanks in large part to a tipped pass by Burks that was intercepted by S 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.
“It all comes down to finishing drives, you can’t win with field goals,” Mertz said after the game.
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. “I’m just going to give my guy a shot,” Mertz said when asked about the play.
The Badgers responded by getting inside of Minnesota’s ten-yard line, but settled for a field goal to tie it at 13 but then the Gophers marched 74 yards in just under two minutes and scored on a 27 yard Tanner Morgan pass to Chris Autman-Bell. The Gophers were helped on that drive by a pass interference call on Caesar Williams.
“They put their hands on us first and were being more aggressive where we had to play their game. If we enforce, or give that same, I’m not sure how to say it, but we give that same aggressiveness back we’re flagged for it,” Williams opined after the game. “I didn’t agree with [the call] at all. I got up with the feeling that it was on the offense.”
Wisconsin went three and out after that and, frankly, the fourth quarter was just a formality after that.
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 fourth and ten Paul Chryst elected to kick a 48-yard field goal which doinked off the crossbar. This would not be Chryst’s last baffling fourth down decision of the game.
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.
In what can only be described as a Season Defining Play, the Badgers faced fourth and one from their own 21-yard line, down 13 points, with 4:26 to play. With the way Wisconsin’s offense had scored, you know, zero touchdowns up to that point...you have to go for it. Instead, the punt team comes out onto the field.
Everyone is confused. Including the Badgers punt team, apparently, because they get called for a false start making it now fourth and six. Chryst calls timeout and then sends his offense back onto the field...in a worse position than they were in to start when they should have just gone for it.
“Never should’ve even been thinking to punt. I didn’t handle it well, flat out.” - Chryst on the mind-boggling call to send out the punter on 4th and 1 in a two score game— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) November 28, 2021
Strangely, Mertz completed the pass to TE Jake Ferguson for 11 yards, but that is besides the point. Whatever was going on with the decision making for that play is troubling. Whatever, this is getting into opinion blog territory and not game recap territory.
Mertz ended the day with a pedestrian stat line, going 21-of-38 (55%) for 171 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception. Danny Davis (60 yards) and Kendric Pryor (29 yards) each had five catches while the running game never once got going, gaining 62 yards on 22 carries (2.8 ypc). Leo Chenal ended the game with 14 tackles and Keeanu Benton had six tackles and two sacks from his nose tackle position.
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. We now await UW’s bowl destination which will be much less prestigious than it was at the beginning of the day.
“Obviously, offensively we didn’t score enough points,” Chryst noted and that should probably just be the title of the season ending highlight video.