For the ninth season in a row, Paul Bunyan’s Axe will call Madison, Wis., home.
Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) leaned on the combined 341 rushing yards and five touchdowns of standout tailbacks Montee Ball and James White to run past border rival Minnesota (4-3, 0-3) 38-13 at Camp Randall Saturday afternoon.
Just a week removed from hanging the second-highest offensive output in school history on Purdue, Wisconsin’s offensive line again dominated the trenches Saturday, buoying the team to 337 yards on the ground behind Ball’s 166 yards and White’s 175 yards.
“We’re taking little steps,” redshirt junior center Travis Frederick said. “The offensive line is playing a lot better, and everybody’s playing a lot better … and finally that’s starting to break things open for the running backs. They’re doing as great a job as they’ve ever been. To have a 1-2 punch like that and Melvin (Gordon) in there, it’s phenomenal for us.”
In the 122nd installment of college football’s longest-played rivalry, the Badgers used a not-so-historic formation to bring a bit of spice on offense.
Using what Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema called in his postgame press conference the “barge” formation, the Badgers used a package that featured White at quarterback with Ball in the backfield. The formation also utilized the team’s strength, size and depth on the offensive line with seven offensive linemen and two tight ends on the line of scrimmage.
“It was something [White] did in high school at St. Thomas Aquinas (in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.),” Bielema said. “At Wisconsin, we have a lot of big people and that got quite a few of them out there. We cut all the pretty guys out, no wide receivers, no quarterbacks and we didn’t even put our fullback out there.”
The formation led to UW’s first score, as White scampered for a 14-yard touchdown run two plays after a 42-yard completion from quarterback Joel Stave to wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.
“It’s pretty cool,” White said. “It’s something I did in high school, so it’s not something that’s too new to me. It’s just another way to get me the ball and I just try to take advantage of it.”
It was an offensive wrinkle Minnesota was entirely unprepared for.
“When you haven’t seen [the package] on film or anything like that and they put five guys on one side and three on the other, that’s a good move on their part,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. “You get all those big guys on one side, and you get shifted over there and take care of that side, then they come back to the other side.”
But Minnesota answered quickly. In a surprising late-week move, the Gophers removed freshman Philip Nelson’s redshirt to replace the struggling Max Shortell at quarterback. The young Nelson showed poise, leading his team on a seven-play, 65-yard drive capped by a 16-yard connection to wide receiver Brandon Green, bringing the score to 6-7 after the Gophers missed the extra point try.
Nelson finished the day with 149 passing yards, 68 rushing yards and two touchdowns. But Badgers’ cornerback Devin Smith and linebacker Ethan Armstrong each recorded interceptions in the second half during which the team turned into 10 points.
“We heard rumors last night he was going to start and we haven’t seen any film on him and know from what was presented he was a talented player,” Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. “He ran well … he was pretty composed for a freshman. He didn’t make too many mistakes, his two interceptions were good plays by our guys.”
But the efforts of Ball and White were just too much for Minnesota to combat. While Ball struggled out of the gates in the first half — just 39 yards on 10 carries — White was electric, rushing for 98 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries.
But Ball, a 2011 Heisman finalist, could not be contained for four quarters.
After Minnesota brought the score to 24-13 on a 14-yard pass from Nelson to A.J. Barker at the end of the third quarter, something clicked for Ball as he churned out touchdown runs of 14 and 44 yards in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter.
“When [White] starts playing really, really well, it kind of sets a fire into me,” Ball said. “I told him I better get going and vice-versa, which is the healthy competition that we have. It betters the offense.”
Ball’s 93 fourth quarter yards seemed to come all too easily for the Badgers as the offensive line wore down the Gophers’ front seven with 54 running plays throughout the game, compared to just 15 passing plays.
It was the ninth straight time the Badgers have beaten the Gophers, tying the longest winning streak in the series’ history.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” linebacker Mike Taylor said. “Growing up in the state of Wisconsin, that’s what you watch, the Badgers versus the Gophers, Paul Bunyan’s Axe. We get up for this one, us Wisconsin kids, that’s why we come to Wisconsin.”
—Of Note: The game was the 21st consecutive home win for UW, the second-longest active streak behind LSU. The Badgers have scored at least 31 points against Minnesota in each of the last 13 games (dating back to 2000). White had the second-best rushing performance of his career, and his 175 yards on 15 carries gave him 100-plus yards for the second-consecutive game. With two touchdowns Saturday, Ball is only five touchdowns away from breaking the NCAA career touchdowns mark. Bielema has never lost to Minnesota in his career as head coach (7-0).
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