Leo Musso studied the faces of his teammates on the University of Wisconsin football team and saw expressions of shock.
UW trailed 17-7 at halftime to Minnesota, who the Badgers had beaten 12 years in a row. The Gophers were on the verge of kidnapping Paul Bunyan’s Axe across the border for the first time since Twitter was invented.
Wisconsin had already clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game following Nebraska’s loss to Iowa Friday. Still, this would be a demoralizing loss, especially for the senior class playing in their final home game.
So Musso, a fifth-year senior safety described as “soft-spoken” by his teammates, felt compelled to say something. He rose in front of his team, Axe in hand, and calmly explained that this game came down to what he was holding.
Yes, Musso confessed that was the worst half of football they had played. There was a lot of football to be played, though. Take care of business, he said, and they wouldn’t be the ones to give up the Axe. Don’t listen to the outside noise, he said, this Axe represents us and our journey.
“It was good to get everybody relaxed and focused on the bigger goal,” Musso said of his speech.
Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) answered Musso’s call, scoring 24 unanswered points in the second half en route to a 31-17 win over the Gophers (8-4, 5-4). In doing so, UW kept its hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff alive. The Badgers will likely be favored over Penn State, the east division champs, in the conference title game.
The win marked the 13th straight win for Wisconsin against Minnesota and evened the all-time series for the first time since 1901 (59-59-8).
The Gopher offense carved the UW defense like a turkey on Thanksgiving during the first half, especially with its rushing attack. On the first drive, quarterback Mitch Leidner rushed for 50 yards, and Minnesota got on the board first with Emmit Carpenter’s 21-yard field goal.
A 69-yard kickoff return on a short kick led to the Gophers’ first touchdown, which came on the next play: a 13-yard pass from Leidner to tight end Drew Wolitarsky. Wolitarsky’s 35-yard reception late in the first half set up Leidner’s three-yard touchdown run to make it 17-7 with 53 seconds remaining before halftime. Trailing by 10 points, the Badgers experienced their largest deficit since last season’s opener against Alabama — the only time they fell behind by double digits in a span of 23 games.
“We just weren’t having as much fun because the plays weren’t being made, and we weren’t swarming to the ball as a team,” T.J. Watt, redshirt junior outside linebacker, said.
UW’s first touchdown came on a one-yard reach from sophomore fullback Alec Ingold early in the second quarter, but the story of the first half was the sluggish defense, which allowed 5.5 yards per carry in the first half. A unit that came into the game giving up just 98 yards per game on the ground yielded 115 rushing yards during the first half.
UW head coach Paul Chyrst, who also addressed his team in the locker room during halftime, said his message simple.
“I told them, ‘I love this situation right now … I feel like we’re playing two teams,'” Chryst said. “We’re trying to beat Minnesota, and we had to stop beating ourselves. So we had to just lock in one play at a time.”
If Musso’s speech immediately resonated with the Badgers, it wasn’t evident. Minnesota, now up 17-10 after a 33-yard field goal from Andrew Endicott six minutes into the second half, drove into the red zone after Musso himself had an interception snatched from his grips.
He would redeem himself.
Musso, hovering in a disguised coverage package, stepped in front on a Leidner pass that would have been a touchdown, halting the Gopher drive. It was the last time Minnesota would threaten.
The UW offense, led by fifth-year senior quarterback Bart Houston the whole second half when a hard hit knocked redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook out of the game, took a while to capitalize on the opportunities the defense provided, running just seven plays on the next two drives.
Roughly 90 seconds into the fourth quarter, senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton jumped a back-shoulder route and returned his first of two interceptions 40 yards to the Minnesota 19.
“‘We don’t lose this axe,'” Shelton remembered Musso saying during his speech. “I think guys were able to see there was no panic in the seniors’ eyes … I think as a teammate when guys can look at leaders and see that they’re not panicking, everybody jumps on board.”
Three plays later, senior running back Corey Clement (26 carries, 100 yards) rushed for a touchdown to tie the game at 17 with 11:58 remaining.
After the Wisconsin defense, at this point standing on its head, forced another three-and-out, the Badgers had prime field position to take the lead until Clement fumbled on the second play of the drive, giving Minnesota another chance to take the lead.
“I was just feeling down during the game,” Clement said. “I was like, ‘This really can’t be happening. We’re not gonna let these guys take what’s been ours for the last 12 years.'”
Clement’s teammates on defense refused to let it happen, forcing another three-and-out. Redshirt junior wideout Jazz Peavy (four catches, 47 yards, three carries, 84 yards) took a jet sweep 71 yards inside the red zone. Clement finished off the drive with a two-yard rush to give Wisconsin its first lead, 24-17, with 6:42 remaining.
On Minnesota’s ensuing drive redshirt junior inside linebacker Leon Jacobs picked off Leidner and returned it to the Gopher eight-yard line. Dare Ogunbowale, another fifth-year senior, scored on the first play from scrimmage to make it 31-17. Shelton intercepted Leidner deep 14 seconds of game clock later, sealing the win.
“We thought we could take advantage of the secondary, and we put some throws in there on our one-on-one stuff that should’ve been caught,” Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys said. “They also got us with the pressure, and we turned the ball over.”
Leidner completed two of his 14 passing attempts during the second half, while throwing four picks. The Gopher offense managed 60 total yards in the final 30 minutes.
The evening ended with a coronation for the Big Ten West champs, the second time in three seasons UW has earned that title, on a makeshift stage at midfield with the seniors taking the podium with Chryst and Athletic Director Barry Alvarez. For fifth-year senior and team captain Vince Biegel, Saturday was a sweet victory, especially since many critics did not anticipate Wisconsin advancing to Indianapolis this season.
“Tonight was a special night,” Biegel said. “Not just the seniors, but collectively as a team. We were able to go out, put that first half behind us, keep the Axe where it belongs — here in Madison, Wisconsin.”