Clay chops up Gophers as Badgers keep axe

The Gophers had a chance late in the game, but a fumble secured the Wisconsin victory.

Marco LaNave

Overcast skies and intermittent rain set the scene for most of the 119th football game between Minnesota and Wisconsin on Saturday, but a ray of sunlight broke through to shine on TCF Bank Stadium late in the fourth quarter. It coincided with the start of a Minnesota drive from its 5-yard line with 1:43 remaining and the Gophers needing a field goal to tie the game. âÄúWe werenâÄôt worrying at all; there was no pressure. We thought we just had to make some plays,âÄù senior wide receiver Eric Decker said. âÄúAll you can ask for is a chance.âÄù A third-down completion to sophomore wide receiver Troy Stoudermire gained a first down for Minnesota at its 22-yard line. Seconds later, a diving reception by Decker on fourth-and-16 extended the drive with 42 seconds to play. The sellout crowd of 50,805 bellowed with excitement as the Gophers lined up for a first-down play, but junior quarterback Adam Weber fumbled the ball as he was hit by two Wisconsin defenders. Badgers linebacker Chris Borland dove for and recovered the ball, and then ran to the Wisconsin sideline with his arms high in celebration. Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien then took a knee to end WisconsinâÄôs 31-28 victory , keeping Paul BunyanâÄôs Axe in Madison for a sixth straight year . âÄúIt just rips your guts out,âÄù head coach Tim Brewster said. No sun shone through the clouds as the final 30 seconds ran off the clock. The brief sunlight had simply been the latest of several flashes of hope over the previous 59 minutes of football. âÄúOur coaches told us all week that it doesnâÄôt matter whoâÄôs better in this game,âÄù said junior safety Kim Royston , who transferred from Wisconsin in 2008 and made 11 tackles Saturday against his former teammates. âÄúThereâÄôs going to be a lot of momentum switches; thereâÄôs going to be a lot of changes in the game.âÄù Minnesota surged back into the game when Wisconsin was on the verge of closing the door. A red-zone fumble by Badgers running back Zach Brown bounced to senior cornerback Marcus Sherels , who ran 88 yards for a momentum-swinging touchdown. A two-point conversion by the Gophers narrowed the BadgersâÄô lead to 24-21 with 6:50 remaining in the game. Wisconsin rebounded when running back John Clay ran for his third touchdown, extending the BadgersâÄô lead to 31-21 with three minutes remaining. Though dormant for most of the second half, the Gophers offense sprung back. Weber completed a 40-yard pass to Decker, followed by a 38-yard completion to senior tight end Nick Tow-Arnett that set up first and goal at WisconsinâÄôs 2. The Gophers hurried to run their next play, and they caught a break for doing so. Badgers linebacker Mike Taylor appeared to seal the game with a goal-line interception, but an extra Wisconsin player had not reached the sideline before the snap. The penalty for 12 men on the field negated the turnover and hinted that it could be the GophersâÄô lucky day. Sophomore running back Duane Bennett ran for a 1-yard touchdown on the next play, cutting the deficit to 31-28 with 2:13 remaining. The Gophers couldnâÄôt recover the ensuing onside kick, but the defense that allowed three second-half touchdowns came through with its biggest stop of the day. Wisconsin punted after a three-and-out series. The kick was tipped by Gophers redshirt freshman linebacker Keanon Cooper , but the ball rolled to the Minnesota 5-yard line. With no timeouts and 1:43 to play, the Gophers needed to move into field-goal range. âÄúIt was set up for a great ending because of a group of kids that truly believe that they could go make it happen,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúAnd IâÄôll tell you what: they darn near did.âÄù Because they didnâÄôt, though, the Gophers will look back on the key moments when they could have done more. Twice in the first half, they drove inside the Wisconsin 10-yard line but settled for field goals both times. âÄúThe defense is letting you score points,âÄù Weber said of the red-zone chances. âÄúThose points come back to haunt you.âÄù Minnesota recovered a fumble by Tolzien on WisconsinâÄôs first drive of the second half and gave the ball to the offense in Badgers territory. The Gophers failed to score, however, as a holding penalty nullified a 16-yard run to the Wisconsin 2-yard line by sophomore running back DeLeon Eskridge , and WeberâÄôs pass on third-and-12 from the Wisconsin 28 bounced out of EskridgeâÄôs hands and into the arms of Badgers defensive tackle Patrick Butrym . âÄúWe needed to capitalize right there and really give our team some momentum, and we didnâÄôt do it,âÄù Brewster said. From there, Wisconsin used its power-running game to overtake the Gophers and build a 24-13 lead. Clay rushed 32 times for 184 yards âÄî the highest totals the Gophers have allowed to an opposing player this season . WisconsinâÄôs 295 total rushing yards were the most by a Gophers opponent since the Badgers rushed for 325 yards in 2007 . The Badgers gained 317 total yards (232 yards rushing) in the second half. âÄúWe got a little bit worn down, and weâÄôve got to get the defense off the field some,âÄù Brewster said. âÄúThey stayed on the field, and that was certainly to [WisconsinâÄôs] advantage.âÄù The Badgers held the ball for 21:05 in the second half, which proved to be their best defense because it kept the Gophers offense on the sideline. âÄúThey stuck to their game plan,âÄù Weber said. âÄúWe werenâÄôt able to match that.âÄù That feeling of shortcoming was potent for the Gophers. âÄúWe lost a game that I personally think we should have won, but we didnâÄôt âÄî bottom line,âÄù Royston said. âÄúI definitely have a little pain in my heart right now.âÄù Yet Brewster said the most important outcome of SaturdayâÄôs loss will be how the team responds to disappointment. âÄúThe season doesnâÄôt stop, even after a big game like we had today,âÄù Weber said. In other words, the sun will rise again tomorrow for the Gophers.