With a second half surge and an eventual 41-23 victory over Minnesota, the Wisconsin Badgers put themselves back in the Big Ten title hunt and kept the Axe in their possession for the seventh straight year.
That gives Badger fans the all-important bragging rights over their hated border rivals and UW head coach Bret Bielema was happy to give it to them.
“I always get a kick out of this week. Everybody just wishes you good luck for normal games but everyone was saying ‘coach keep the axe’ and it’s just a different week,” Bielema said. “It’s important to anybody that loves Wisconsin, and we do, and it’s great to give it to the fans.”
After earning a 14-9 halftime lead, UW (5-1) played with a purpose in the second half, scoring touchdowns on consecutive drives to start the third quarter.
James White took a pitch off left tackle and scored from eight yards out to give the Badgers a 12-point lead, and John Clay added another touchdown eight minutes later to establish a comfortable 28-9 advantage.
“We always talk about starting fast and we were psyched coming out of the locker room to prove who we are,” sophomore center Pete Konz said. “We didn’t think we did that in the first half.”
“We stubbed our toe a little in the second quarter and went in at halftime, and the coaches talked through some things, offense and defense,” Bielema said. “We really came out humming in the third quarter.”
The first score of the second half came after a sloppy 11-play, 64-yard drive. UW benefited from a third down defensive holding call and a facemask penalty that occurred on a tackle that brought Scott Tolzien down for a sack.
Those two Gopher penalties allowed UW to stay on the field and come away with a momentum-swinging score.
“It was crucial to score after half and it wasn’t really a clean drive. There were so many penalties,” senior guard John Moffitt said. “We were given a couple gifts, but I mean it was great it went our way.”
UW added a third straight touchdown early in the fourth quarter as Clay rumbled into the end zone for his third touchdown of the day. The powerful score from eight yards out gave Wisconsin a 35-9 lead.
But Minnesota finally answered less than a minute later thanks to a jaw-dropping 22-yard touchdown reception from Da’Jon McKnight. McKnight was running stride-for-stride with UW cornerback Antonio Fenelus but the junior wideout laid out and fought off Fenelus to make the catch.
But UW had a quick response to that score thanks to the efforts of White.
The true freshman tailback, who ran for 119 yards on the day, set the Badgers up on the doorstep after leaving Gopher safety Ryan Collado in the dust. White reached the second level, pulled out an ankle-breaking juke, and sprinted down to the one-yard line.
“I just did a little move to freeze the corner and ran right by him,” White said.
From there, White finished the drive with a touchdown run straight up the gut.
Minnesota added a late touchdown on a fourth-down jump-ball that McKnight brought down in the corner of the endzone, but the Gophers played from behind the entire day and it was an uphill battle for UM throughout.
Jared Abbrederis opened the scoring six minutes in and in the process became the first UW wide receiver to score a touchdown in 2010. Tolzien, who finished 17-for-23 on the day, hit the freshman on a quick slant and the connection made for an easy 3-yard score.
“I saw the safety was down so I know the pass was coming to me,” Abbrederis said. “I was real excited in my stance and I knew I just had to execute the play.”
Clay added a one-yard touchdown toward the end of the first quarter but Minnesota came back with nine unanswered points to end the half. After a Marqueis Gray touchdown grab, Eric Ellestad missed the PAT but it proved to be irrelevant as the Gophers dropped to 1-5 on the season.
The victory means UW’s seniors have kept the axe in their possession throughout their entire collegiate careers, and that’s a point of pride for everyone in the program.
“It means a lot because this is one of the first things you learn as a recruit and as a player. You’re preached of the importance of that axe,” Tolzien said. “We know how much it means to Wisconsin and the people in this program.”