Saturday's game was a morbidly cold affair, one that the ESPN sideline reporter predictably identified early as one that would be won in the trenches. Footballs slid through arms and across the turf like a hockey puck.
Wisconsin kept acting like it was ready to pull away before some kind of invisible barrier kept it from doing so. But eventually it ended with a somewhat satisfying 20-7 win, one that still turns the stomach queasy because Badger fans are still adjusting to the idea of Minnesota being an eight-win team. These Gophers proved more than the apparition of a Big Ten team that’s recently occupied Minneapolis.
And by the end, a very lumberjack-like Beau Allen stared at that massive axe and lifted it above his head and all was right in the world.
Let’s grade the victory that kept Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Madison for a record 10th straight year.
Joel Stave seemingly spent as much time sprawled on the turf as he did upright. Minnesota hit and hurried and tugged at him, and it certainly played a role in his mediocre performance.
The lasting mistake was the second-quarter interception that produced the Gophers’ only score. He threw it right into the hands of linebacker Aaron Hill, who stood a full yard or two from the receiver Stave targeted, Alex Erickson. Intense pressure was clearly to blame for the pick-six, and the redshirt sophomore’s overall ratio of 17 touchdown passes to nine interceptions is passable.
On that final drive of the second half, he first overthrew Derek Watt and then Sam Arneson. Both likely would have resulted in touchdowns, but instead the Badgers settled for a field goal even after a touchy pass interference call gave them a second chance.
Running backs: B+
Blame it on the weather, but Minnesota’s defensive line deserves major credit for holding Wisconsin’s rushing attack under 200 yards for only the second time this year. The only other team to do it was Ohio State.
James White opened with a beautiful 49-yard run that could have easily resulted in a loss, if not for the senior’s tremendous second effort. That one run accounted for nearly 40 percent of his yards Saturday. Given the conditions and the game’s physicality, it was the right choice to make White the feature back.
Melvin Gordon twice nearly broke out for those now-signature long touchdown runs, one last hand tripping him up on runs in the second and third. His 5.8 yards per carry were the most of any player with more than two carries Saturday; yards don’t come easy when you’re running on a field so cold it's turned to cement and carrying a ball with all the grip of a block of ice.
Wide receivers: B+
Points deducted for that second half play-action bomb that Jared Abbrederis couldn’t hang onto. It certainly wasn’t a routine catch, but Stave put the ball where it needed to be because a defensive back trailed close behind. It was one of the first near-big plays that could have kept Wisconsin from its lowest score output of the season.
Abbrederis caught seven of Stave’s 16 completions for 67 yards and his only touchdown pass -- still a strong game from the senior. But it begs the question, where does the team turn next year? There’s no clear No. 2, lead-receiver-in-waiting type guy.
Offensive line: B-
Minnesota ranks in the top 50 in rushing and total defense, but the big boys got pushed around a bit more than they should have. After all, this game would be won in the trenches.
Stave wasn’t sacked and received strong protection on several throws -- some of which still didn’t reach the intended target -- but his jersey was plenty dirty by game’s end. It wasn’t a bad game for the O-line, just not the one the game tape they’ll cue up when watching film of their season highlights ahead of the bowl game.
Tight ends: A-
Jacob Pedersen has really shown alluring progress through this season. His 32 receptions for 437 yards are both career-highs, though his three touchdown catches are well off the pace of his career best (eight), set in 2011.
Pedersen’s 20-yard grab late in the second set up the Badgers’ first touchdown. The senior’s five receptions made him the second leading receiver, a duty I wish he filled more convincingly earlier in the season.
Play calling: B+
It looked like the calls were there and the execution wasn’t. Stave left too many screen passes short and the Badgers failed to convert their first five third downs (finishing 4-of-16), though I don’t shoulder much of that blame on offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
I especially like the designed roll out for Stave in the first quarter and the two screen passes to Abbrederis to opposite sides on the third quarter drive that brought UW’s second and final touchdown. More play-action and a few jet sweeps may have done the Badgers well.
And that trick play in the fourth quarter with Arneson as the passer? Cool idea, and reminiscent of something the Badgers tried in last year’s Big Ten title game, but that was disastrous.
Defensive line: A
Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson was sacked three times, and all three came from the D-line -- Brendan Kelly had two and Warren Herring one. They honed in on Nelson’s scrambles early and slammed that door shut, as he picked up just 0.9 yards per rush on nine carries.
Kelly also had that well-timed slash on an unexpecting Nelson in the second, in which Chris Borland recovered the fumble.
The new 3-4 system has clearly been a strength for this team, and it showed again Saturday as a Gophers rushing attack that averages 207.7 yards per game to 102 rushing yards.
Chris Borland is a first-team All-American. In my book, that’s a fact, whether the voters decide to put him there or not. Per usual, he had a team-leading 12 tackles, recovered two fumbles to tie the Big Ten record (14) and set a new team record for fumble recoveries (8).
Other than Borland, a quiet day for a group that’s anchored this defense all year.
Cornerback Sojourn Shelton and safety Tanner McEvoy both came up with big fourth-quarter tips that prevented surefire touchdown passes. Nelson also just missed his target on a few throws, but without those plays there’s no way the defense makes it through a second straight week without allowing a touchdown.
Nate Hammon also forced a fumble to dismantle Minnesota’s fourth drive. Hammon got way too aggressive late in the game and easily could have been flagged for more than one pass interference call.
Special teams: B-
After falsely building Gary Andersen’s confidence by hitting 31- and 20-yard field goals, kicker Jack Russell of course sent a 38-yard try way left. Yes, the snap was shaky, but not nearly as shaky as his right foot.
Abbrederis also fumbled a third-quarter punt return, one that could have shifted the game’s balance had the Badgers not recovered it.