Minnesota secured Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday long before the Golden Gophers actually sprinted towards the trophy in Camp Randall Stadium’s South end zone.
They didn’t simply end the University of Wisconsin’s 14-game stranglehold in the series. Minnesota crushed the Badgers, 37-15, to snatch away hardware the Gophers haven’t displayed in Minneapolis since 2003. It marked UW’s worst home loss against Minnesota since 1936 and its widest margin of defeat in the rivalry since 1969.
“They were the dominant team tonight,” UW safety D’Cota Dixon said. “Simple as that. There’s no excuses. There’s no ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ or ‘buts.’ They were the better football team tonight. They did what they came here to do.”
The win granted Minnesota (6-6, 3-6) bowl eligibility in P.J. Fleck’s second year as head coach and served as a new low point in a season full of them for the Badgers (7-5, 5-4), who entered the year ranked fourth and with aspirations of making the College Football Playoff.
Multiple seniors, including Dixon, left guard Michael Deiter, and right guard Beau Benzschawel, said after the game that the inability to end their careers by ceremonially chopping down the goal posts with the Axe will stick with them forever.
“You’re more so just kind of, not embarrassed, but you feel like you let the guys down that were here before you,” UW senior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “That’s really tough to think about. I never in a million years thought that we would lose this game, but we did.”
UW could point to many areas that led to its shocking performance Saturday. Four turnovers from quarterback Alex Hornibrook in his first game back from a concussion led to 24 Minnesota points. The Badger defense’s inability to stop the Gophers’ running game allowed Minnesota to remain in favorable down-and-distances all day.
But it was a special teams play that initially broke the game open. UW fell into serious trouble when Demetrius Douglas returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown with 1:05 left in the first half, extending an already troubling Gophers lead to 17-0.
The return came less than two minutes after the Gophers took advantage of a Hornibrook interception to score their first touchdown. Freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan completed a 28-yard pass to wide receiver Tyler Johnson after the pick, and Minnesota went on to convert two fourth-and-1s inside the UW 25-yard line. The second of those fourth-down conversions went for a 10-yard touchdown run from Mohamed Ibrahim, who finished with a game-high 121 rushing yards on 26 carries.
“My true freshman year (in 2014), we were down (17-3) against Minnesota and came back to win,” Benzschawel said. “I figured it’d be the same thing.”
At first, Benzschawel’s hopes appeared to have legs. The Badgers put together a seemingly crucial drive after Douglas’ return, going 76 yards on eight plays before tight end Jake Ferguson caught a 7-yard touchdown with one second left in the half.
Running back Jonathan Taylor, who finished with 120 yards on 19 carries, began with a 12-yard run before Hornibrook completed four straight passes for 42 combined yards. Running back Garrett Groshek then gained 15 yards to set up Ferguson’s score.
UW tried to keep its momentum by going for it on fourth-and-4 from the Gophers’ 44-yard line on the second half’s first possession, but Hornibrook felt immediate pressure from a blitz and threw an incompletion. Minnesota took over with great field position and turned it into a 23-yard field goal that extended its lead to 20-7.
“You kind of had a sense that we were going to need to at some point take a risk,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “Felt pretty confident … where we were at, so that kind of went into the thought process of it. We don’t know at that time, are we going to be able to slow down the run? You didn’t know how many possessions you had. And it felt like it was a manageable one that was worth the risk.”
Hornibrook, who finished 22-of-33 passing for 189 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions, threw his second pick with 5:54 left in the third quarter when he rolled left on third-and-10 before forcing a pass to Kendric Pryor. Pryor tipped the ball up and Julian Huff caught it at the Minnesota 45, leading to another field goal for the Gophers.
“It was just a little high, but I make those kind of catches,” Pryor said. “I put that on myself for not being able to bring that down.”
After a three-and-out for the Badgers the next time out, Minnesota ate up more than nine minutes of clock. While it led to a missed 28-yard field goal, the Gophers ran on 12 of 14 plays before the kick, leaving UW with just 5:37 remaining to make up a 16-point deficit.
“I think it’s kind of the theme of the game,” Edwards said. “On first and second down, we weren’t able to make them uncomfortable or put them in a tough third-down situation.”
Two plays later, Hornibrook lost a fumble, and Bryce Williams’ 23-yard touchdown run on the next snap blew the game open by handing the Gophers a 30-7 advantage. Chris Williamson then picked off Hornibrook seconds later before Williams piled on with another score from 16 yards out.
UW added a meaningless touchdown on a 13-yard pass from Hornibrook to Danny Davis with 1:12 left — only moments before Minnesota grabbed the Axe for the first time in 15 years.
Chryst said he felt his team came into the day prepared. The end result, however, didn’t show it.
“We felt like we should win that game,” Hornibrook said. “We know we should win that game. … I think we all felt good in the preparation going into this game. I think it just came down to executing. There were some things that I could do better, and this whole team, we just needed to execute better than we did today.”