Whether it is indoors or outdoors, in Minneapolis or Madison, in “The Bank” or the Dome, one thing remains the same: The rivalry between Wisconsin and Minnesota is as unpredictable as they come.
The Badgers and Gophers proved that once again Saturday in the 119th meeting between the two teams, as they battled for 60 minutes in a 31-28 victory for UW. It was a back-and-forth affair, which recently has become the norm in the rivalry.
“I thought it was supposed to be only in the Metrodome. I was hoping we were going to change that,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “I told Tim (Brewster) after the game ‘great environment.’ Every time we come up here it seems be one of these types of games.”
Much like the last few times the two teams have met, the game was decided on crucial turnovers and the outcome was not clear until Chris Borland’s fumble recovery in the final minute. Of course, there was a reason behind the close nature of the game Saturday, and it was not the newly-opened TCF Bank Stadium.
Wisconsin simply was unable to put the game out of reach for Minnesota, despite answering the Gophers nearly every time both offensively and defensively. The Badgers kept letting the Gophers back in it, giving the Minnesota faithful some hope and keeping the gold-clad fans at “The Bank” from heading for the exits.
“I thought we won that game about three times in the fourth quarter,” safety Jay Valai said. “The next thing I know, we have to loosen the tie a little bit.”
Valai certainly did his part in trying to maintain the Badgers’ lead, however.
He was all over the field Saturday, making plays in the running game and lining up in coverage on Minnesota’s leading receiver Eric Decker. In fact, several Badgers lined up in coverage on the 6-foot-3-inch receiver Saturday, including Valai, free safety Chris Maragos and all four cornerbacks.
Decker still managed eight catches in the game for 140 yards, however, along with an 11-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter to give the Gophers their first lead of the day.
Both teams started slow offensively combining for just 23 points in the first half as the Gophers took a 13-10 lead into the locker room.
The Badgers started strong after the break to take control of the game, scoring the first 14 points in the second half on a one-yard John Clay touchdown run and a five-yard touchdown reception by tight end Lance Kendricks in the back of the end zone.
Clay finished with a career-high 184 yards rushing on 32 carries and three touchdowns. It was his 5.8 yard per carry average that really allowed Wisconsin to take control of the game in the third quarter. For his efforts, the sophomore earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week as his career day moved him into the Big Ten rushing lead. Clay also ranks fifth in the nation in rushing average with 116.4 yards per game.
A few crucial mistakes by the Badgers allowed the Gophers to hang around, though. The biggest of those was yet another costly fumble by Wisconsin running back Zach Brown.
With a 24-13 lead and just over seven minutes remaining, Brown coughed up the ball, and potentially a rare easy victory at the Minnesota 15-yard line.
“I was turning around talking to our field goal unit when I saw the reaction of the crowd, and I knew it wasn’t a reaction to a positive play for us,” Bielema said. “I turned around and that guy was streaking (for the end zone). We’ll go back to some ball security with Zach Brown.”
The ensuing touchdown, an 88-yard fumble return by UM cornerback Marcus Sherels, coupled with a two-point conversion for the Gophers, cut the lead to 24-21 and breathed new life into the Minnesota players and fans.
Wisconsin responded quickly, however, with an eight-play, 74-yard drive that spanned just 3 minutes and 50 seconds. A 47-yard Scott Tolzien run down the left sideline highlighted the drive and it was capped by a one-yard touchdown for Clay, his third of the game.
Just like that, the momentum was back in the favor of those in cardinal and white, but it would not last.
“Today we just showed that we can endure and persevere through anything,” defensive end O’Brien Schofield said. “We did make it harder than what it needed to be but (we) just fight through it again. It’s just proving that this year’s team can fight through any adversity that we go through.”
Making it harder than what it needed to be is probably the best way to describe the next series of events in the game.
After Minnesota quickly drove to the Badgers’ two-yard line, linebacker Mike Taylor made the interception that appeared to put the game away with less than three minutes to go. That was not the case, however, as a crucial Wisconsin penalty brought it back.
The Gophers scored on the next play, once again cutting the lead to three points.
Following the Minnesota touchdown and a failed onside kick, the Wisconsin offense was stagnant on its final drive, giving the ball back to the home team with 1:43 left on the block. In one of the stranger plays of the game, UM partially blocked Brad Nortman’s punt, but it took a Wisconsin roll, eventually being downed on the Gophers’ five-yard line.
Wisconsin’s defense was unfazed, however, shutting the Gophers down on their final drive and stepping up when the Badgers needed it most. Schofield played a huge role in the stop, forcing a fumble that allowed the Badgers to take the ball back and run out the clock. Schofield was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after recording a pair of sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.
“I knew it was going to be a dogfight,” free safety Chris Maragos said. “Just the way the game swings, you know, anytime you’re in a rivalry game like this you’ve got to expect everything, and we did.”