The Wisconsin Badgers (8-4 overall, 6-3 Big Ten) came into Saturday looking to secure the Big Ten West, retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe, and book a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship. Minnesota (8-4 overall, 6-3 Big Ten) had other plans, as the Gophers handled the Badgers to take back the Axe for the second time since 2004.
The game was an ugly watch for Wisconsin fans the entire afternoon ended with Minnesota storming the field and blasting Jump Around at midfield to celebrate.
Let’s look back at what stood out from the brutal loss.
Wisconsin was beaten in the trenches by Minnesota. The Gophers front seven stymied the Badgers rushing attack and on the other side of the ball, Minnesota’s offensive line did a good job of doing just enough to stay ahead of the chains and gave quarterback Tanner Morgan time in the passing game.
Wisconsin’s defense relied on generating pressure all season long, and in the past two games, the rushers have not been able to make the quarterback uncomfortable. Against the Gophers, the result was four passing plays of 25+ yards that helped to swing the game in Minnesota’s favor. The Badgers did manage three sacks but beyond those pressures, Morgan had time to beat Jim Leonhard's secondary, and he made the throws necessary.
On offense, the Badgers were unable to get things going on the ground. After seven straight games of eclipsing 100 yards rushing, a visibly hobbled Braelon Allen was held to only 47 yards. As a team, Wisconsin only mustered 2.8 yards per carry and attempted a season-low 22 rushes. While the offensive line was ok in pass-pro, they were unable to get much movement against Minnesota’s front seven.
For a program that prides itself on the big boys up front, Wisconsin was thoroughly outplayed along the offensive line in each of the four losses.
No second pitch
This season Wisconsin won the games where they could run the ball. After seven straight games of being able to run the ball down the throat of their opponents, Minnesota was wise and sold out to stop the run. In response, Wisconsin didn’t have a viable secondary option to move the ball beyond Allen.
Allen is a stud, but he was clearly playing through an injury. It was somewhat surprising that Paul Chryst did not give Julius Davis any carries to stick with the run. Instead, the Badgers attempted their second-most pass attempts (38) of the season, and once again struggled when they became one-dimensional with the passing game. Wisconsin has now lost all three games this season when Graham Mertz has been tasked with throwing the ball more than 25 times.
“We didn’t do enough throwing wise to take them out of what they were trying to do defensively.” - Chryst notes— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) November 28, 2021
In total, the Badgers offense only averaged 3.9 yards per play and 4.5 yards per pass attempt compared to 12.4 per attempt for Minnesota. Mertz was off most of the day and had a down performance, but so did his receivers. Sometimes wide receivers need to just make a play regardless of how well the ball is thrown though, and Kendric Pryor missed a couple of opportunities to do that.
Overall, the Wisconsin offense was not good enough to win the game. The unit only scored six points and had multiple miscommunications in the passing game, missed some easy throws, and got nothing going on the ground.
Big play trouble
A week after being torched by Nebraska’s passing game, Wisconsin’s defense once again was bad in coverage. The loss of Collin Wilder due to a questionable targeting call on the first play of the game did not help, but the Badgers really struggled against play-action.
Minnesota used the same tight end delay scheme three separate times out of play-action for big gains. Wisconsin’s safeties were caught looking into the backfield as Minnesota tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford was able to get loose for big gains.
Minnesota came into the game No. 117 in passing offense this season. In a low-scoring affair where every yard matters, the fact that the Gophers were able to generate four plays of at least 27 yards really shifted the game, and Tanner Morgan was efficient as a passer.
Scott Nelson had a big pick-six early in the game to shift momentum in Wisconsin’s favor but beyond that Minnesota’s receiving threats won out against the secondary.
The end of the game snafu on fourth and one has been well documented at this point. It was a bad look, but in the end, it did not determine the outcome.
“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
However, the lack of creativity on offense in the biggest game of the year was frustrating. Minnesota threw some new things at the Badgers to tilt the game in their favor, while Wisconsin lacked any explosiveness on offense.
Wisconsin's longest play of the day was 17 yards and everything seemed like the same script, just without Allen running wild for them. With everything on the line in a rivalry game, I think most would have expected a few new looks to try to surprise the Gophers when your fastball clearly isn't working.
Given the way the season finished and the way Minnesota outperformed Wisconsin in all facets of the game, the team will need to rally and get right before a bowl game. I still think there is a strong chance that some changes will be made this off-season, after all, it took a 17-year-old to turn the offense around midseason. The fact that the Badgers offense scored 46 points in their four losses this year when you remove the pick-six by Nelson against Minnesota is downright bad. That’s not enough points to win big games. That needs to change for the Badgers to get back to playing in Indianapolis.
Hopefully, the team uses this loss to fuel them for the bowl game and for next season. Because Wisconsin fans rightfully have high expectations and the performance on Saturday wasn’t good enough.