MADISON — Wisconsin’s 31-17 win over the Minnesota Gophers was not 60 minutes of high-level Wisconsin football.
It was what Paul Chryst called a fight against two teams rather than one, with the Badgers coming out in the second half ready to make a turnaround in the border battle for the Paul Bunyan Axe.
While it was not the prettiest win for the now 10-2 Big Ten West Champions, it was a necessary win for the 13 seniors on the field Saturday and all the men surrounding them, hungry to continue the 13-game win streak over Minnesota and head into the Big Ten Championship with the leading Big Ten West record.
“I felt like we were playing two teams,” the head coach said. “We were trying to beat Minnesota, and we were also trying to stop beating ourselves.”
First Half Frustrations
17 points. 12 first down. 115 rushing yards and 111 passing yards.
For the Gophers not for the Badgers.
The Badgers struggled rather atypically in the first half offensively and defensively. Minnesota nearly doubled the Badgers in total offensive yards 226 to 144. They completed all three attempts in the red zone while Wisconsin only had the opportunity to head down once and come away with points.
Minnesota’s quarterback Mitch Leidner threw for 111 yards and a touchdown while both Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston combined has only 98 yards with no touchdowns. And Minnesota didn’t even control the time of possession, having the ball for 14:37 to Wisconsin’s 15:23.
“It was a lot of frustration,” outside linebacker Vince Biegel said. “I think we were really beating ourselves the first half, mental errors, guys weren’t lined up, weren’t doing what they were taught. That’s very uncharacteristic of our Wisconsin defense.”
The Minnesota defense held senior running back Corey Clement to only 26 yards and 46 total rushing yards for Wisconsin. While Bart Houston was able to get the offense moving in the second quarter, similar to what he did the week prior in Purdue, an injury to starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook in the second quarter only added to offensive struggles.
With Minnesota leading 17-7 at the end of the first half something had to be done to get the Badgers team alive and moving in the second half, and senior safety Leo Musso appeared to be that saving grace in the Badgers locker room.
Teammates after the game spoke of his speech as a necessary and historic one that outsiders will only get to hear the bits and pieces of.
“I just told everybody to relax, to forget what’s going on to forget it’s our last home game,” Musso said. “Let’s go out there and play. I just told them that’s the worst half of football that we’ve played as a team.”
With the legendary Paul Bunyan Axe in hand, Musso said he just felt compelled to talk to his teammates in the moment after that disastrous first half.
It was what the Badgers needed to turn the game back into the hands of Wisconsin’s playmakers.
Houston making the most of Senior Day
The Wisconsin offense, led by senior Bart Houston, was able to put up the 24 points in the second half to win the game and keep the Paul Bunyan Axe at Camp Randall Stadium. While inconsistencies plagued the first half, the team worked together in the second half to return to high performing Wisconsin football.
“Anything can work when guys are helping the team rather than themselves,” senior Houston said of the team’s performance Saturday.
Houston proved once again to be a unique and essential aspect to the Wisconsin offense. When starter Hornibrook went out in the second quarter with an unspecified injury, Houston was able to take control of the offense in the second half, leading several successful drives to the end zone.
He finished the game nine of 14 for 123 yards.
Houston’s humility for the game and for his role on the team showed in interviews after the game. He said, “in the spirit of thanksgiving” that he could not have done it without his family, teammates and coaches.
“He takes a lot of pride in helping this team, and I thought he did that today,” Chryst said of the quarterback.
Following the game, there was little information on the status of redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook’s injury. Though Houston’s performance proved he could lead the team on the offense, Chryst’s two-quarterback system has worked throughout the second half of the season, something even Houston admits can be an advantage for the team.
“We have linemen coming in. We have receivers coming in and even quarterbacks coming in,” he said.
The next man up mentality can be an asset to the Badgers offense against Penn State next week if Hornibrook is able to return.
13-time Paul Bunyan Axe Champions
This was a game the Badgers had to win. That was the mentality heading into the legendary Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry. The Axe, which had remained in Madison for 12 years, was not meant to be moved in the eyes of Wisconsin players.
The players made sure of that on Saturday.
“Normally they say 13 is a bad number, so I’m glad we can make it a good number today,” Corey Clement said.
Houston, who had been practicing with dumbbells all week, said in the post-game ceremony, “it’s awesome to be chopping down some goal posts.”
Saturday’s win was as always about a team effort not individual performances.
Senior running back Dare Ogunbowale said in the post-game ceremony, “We knew that we wanted to do it for each other.”
That team mentality is what makes this Badgers offense unique according to Chryst. He put it simply in his post-game press conference.
“They like football. They like each other. They are willing to work.”
The Badgers will, as Chryst stressed, push the reset button on Sunday and turn their attention to Indianapolis. Chryst said after the game he wanted the players to enjoy the win Saturday night and soak it all in. But Sunday starts preparation for the Big Ten Championship against Big Ten East leaders, Penn State.
While some players like Musso were already thinking about the implications Saturday night, others enjoyed the festivities that went along with a win against Minnesota.
Houston didn’t even know who the Badgers were playing next Saturday until he talked with Barry Alvarez on the stage following the game.
“I think we are very excited,” Biegel said. “That was the goal we had at the beginning of the season. To be able to prove the critics wrong and represent not just the university, but the state of Wisconsin, our friends and family, it’s a special feeling.”
The Badgers play Penn State next Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in the Big Ten Championship.