Wisconsin hadn’t registered a safety since 2004. And then, on back-to-back possessions, it got two of them.
With the scored tied at 24-24 in the fourth quarter, the Badgers forced two safeties against the Golden Gophers on their way to earning a 35-32 victory Saturday night.
“That’s some of the talk earlier in the season … when we had teams backed up,” defensive lineman Mike Newkirk said. “None of us had ever had a safety when we were on the field.”
UW last notched a safety against UNLV on Sept. 11, 2004, when the Badgers had two of them.
On Saturday, the first came as UW kicked off following P.J. Hill’s 1-yard touchdown run that had tied the game at 24.
Minnesota returner Troy Stoudermire was hit by Antonio Fenelus at the 8-yard line, and the loose ball bounced all the way out of the back of the end zone to give Wisconsin a two-point lead.
“That play was a big momentum swing,” defensive lineman O’Brien Schofield said.
It looked like Wisconsin was going to recover the ball for a touchdown, but the Badgers were plenty happy with the safety.
“I thought we had a chance to get on the ball in the end zone and get seven points out of it rather than two,” Badger head coach Bret Bielema said. “But that’s just a head coach being greedy.”
Wisconsin wasn’t able to score on its ensuing possession, but Brad Nortman’s punt left Minnesota with the ball on its own 7-yard line with 11:43 left to play.
The Badger defensive line realized the opportunity it had.
“When we’re down there that close, it’s a goal to get a safety,” Schofield said.
“You get closer and you realize you’re in the realm, and its something that sparks you a little bit and you play a little bit harder,” Newkirk said.
It was Newkirk who really took over.
Newkirk sacked Gopher quarterback Adam Weber for a 5-yard loss on first down. After a false start penalty, Weber was backed up to his 1-yard line facing a third-and-16.
Newkirk came up with another sack, this time in the end zone, and the Badgers had their second safety of the game.
“You get close so many times, but the guy gets rid of it, throws it away,” Newkirk said. “It was nice he held onto the ball for me.”
The second safety might have been the most visible play by the Badgers’ defensive line, which seemed to dominate the Gophers down the stretch.
“I feel like the defensive line stepped up and played to our potential today,” Schofield said. “This is something that we was hoping we could’ve got to earlier in the year, but it came at a good time.”
It was especially big for Newkirk and Matt Shaugnessy, a pair of seniors hoping to keep the ax in their final season.
“Two seniors took it upon themselves,” Bielema said. “I did feel our defensive line raised it up another level and were able to make some pressure and make [Weber] make some bad throws.”
In the fourth quarter alone, Minnesota picked up four false start penalties as the Gopher offensive line tried to slow the Wisconsin rush.
“I guess they were trying to get a good jump,” Schofield said. “We were trying to attack and make sure we won that game.”
With the Badgers’ line getting pressure on Weber, the defensive backs were relieved to have their own job made easier.
“To see what [the defensive line] did today and the way they took over, that was huge for us,” safety Chris Maragos said. “Those guys up front are beasts, and they really took care of business today.”
On the final drive, the defensive line came up big once again. With Minnesota facing fourth down, Weber felt the pressure and was forced to make a poor throw that was intercepted by Niles Brinkley to seal the game.
“We let Ohio State drive down, and we weren’t about to let that happen again so we rallied together,” Schofield said.
For the defensive line, it was as good of a victory as it gets.
“It was something that we always take pride in — putting the game on our shoulders,” Newkirk said, “and it was something we really wanted and we were able to get after it.”