The No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) reclaimed the Axe and booked their ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game with a dominant 38–17 victory against the No. 15 Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-2, 7-2) on Saturday.
The performance was their most complete of the season and now gives them a shot at redemption against No. 2 The Ohio State University after falling 38–7 in Columbus earlier this season.
The victory now moves Minnesota and Wisconsin’s all-time series to 61-60-8 in favor of the Badgers. It also gives Head Coach Paul Chryst’s team the redemption they needed after falling to the Gophers 37–15 last year in Madison.
Here are four takeaways from Saturday’s Big Ten West-clinching victory as well as a few overlooked players who became stars of the game.
First, Chryst made an impressive offensive adjustment early on, which continued his offensive innovation from recent weeks and helped the Badgers take control of the football game.
The Badgers started the contest with the football but went three-and-out, giving the ball to the Gophers who promptly took a 7–0 lead.
The three plays on that drive were all Jonathan Taylor runs, the type of straight-forward running plays Badger fans have grown accustomed to seeing since Taylor came to Madison. They went for just nine yards.
The Badgers then got the ball back and went 19 yards before punting the ball away again. Eight plays to start the game yielded only 28 yards and one first down.
It was at this point that Chryst and Offensive Coordinator Joe Rudolph made an adjustment and changed the offensive looks they gave the Gophers.
When the Badgers got the ball for a third time, this time still down 7–0, they started mixing wide receiver motions into the arsenal, including a jet sweep on 4th-and-3 to Kendric Pryor and wildcat snaps to Aron Cruickshank. Just as they did during the weeks leading up to Saturday, the new looks started working and allowed the Badgers to drive on the Gopher defense.
Despite a Cruickshank fumble in Minnesota territory to end the drive, Chryst stuck with his new plan and, as a result, the Badgers went on to score on six of their seven remaining possessions, including a momentum-changing wrinkle in the return game followed by a Pryor rushing touchdown to put the Badgers up 24–10 in the third quarter.
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The second takeaway from Saturday is Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard’s defensive game plan and how he was able to hold Minnesota’s explosive offense to only three points from the 12:30 mark in the first quarter to late in the fourth quarter when the game was already firmly in hand.
The Gophers started the game off with a bang, scoring a 51-yard touchdown on their second offensive play. The play saw true freshman cornerback Semar Melvin lined up 10 yards deep against Minnesota’s star receiver Rashod Bateman with no safety help over the top. Minnesota Quarterback Tanner Morgan sold a run fake, looked deep and found his man who was running free with nothing but green grass in front of him.
After Morgan connected with Bateman on the deep-strike touchdown, the tides turned and Leonhard’s defense gave up an average of only 29 yards per drive on their next eight drives. They also managed to force three turnovers during that span.
A driving factor behind the unit’s success — aside from Zack Baun’s dominance on the edge and Caesar Williams’ interception and two impressive pass break-ups — was Leonhard shying away from playing off of coverage on Johnson and Bateman after the first touchdown and dialing up second-level blitzes in key situations.
The third takeaway from Saturday is, unlike during last year’s loss to the Gophers, the defensive line absolutely dominated the game up front.
Last year’s matchup saw Minnesota rush for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns. On Saturday, Leonhard’s defensive line held the Gophers to just 76 yards and zero touchdowns on 30 carries and sacked Morgan five times.
Notable performances on the defensive side of the ball include Baun’s nine tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks as well as Garrett Rand’s seven tackles, tackle-for-loss and sack.
The final takeaway from the victory is the Jack Coan to Quintez Cephus connection looks like the best Wisconsin quarterback to receiver combination since Russell Wilson and Nick Toon connected for 926 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2011.
The Morgan to Bateman connection was unsurprisingly the best on the field on Saturday but, surprisingly, Coan and Cephus weren’t far behind.
Cephus ended the day with five catches for 114 yards and a gorgeous 47-yard touchdown on a play early in the third quarter when he beat his man and Coan found him over the top.
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As a final note, Saturday’s game would have turned out differently were it not for the timely contributions from cornerback Caesar Williams, linebacker Jack Sanborn and safety Reggie Pearson.
With Williams’ interception after Sanborn tipped a pass, his two key goal line pass break-ups, Sanborn’s overall versatility and tackles in space and Pearson’s seven tackles from his safety position, these guys showed out and, even though they may not get the press clippings like Baun and Chris Orr, they were some of the driving forces behind the victory.
Overall, this was the Badgers’ most complete performance of the season and bodes well for their chances against the Buckeyes next weekend, though coming away with a victory is still no doubt a tall task. Keep in mind, though, that the Badgers trailed the Buckeyes 10–7 late in the third quarter before the wheels fell off, and the 38–7 score may not tell the whole story of how these two teams match up.
The Badgers will be back in action on Saturday in Indianapolis, Indiana in the Big Ten Championship Game against The Ohio State University at 7 p.m. CST.