Badgers keep Axe after 20-7 win

Wisconsin tallied a 10th straight win against Minnesota on Saturday.

Wisconsin lineman Beau Allen swings Paul Bunyun's Axe after the Badgers defeat Minnesota 20-7 at their last home game of the season.

Amanda Snyder

Wisconsin lineman Beau Allen swings Paul Bunyun’s Axe after the Badgers defeat Minnesota 20-7 at their last home game of the season.

Nate Gotlieb

University of Minnesota players were undoubtedly disappointed with their 20-7 loss to the University of Wisconsin on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. But the Gophers weren’t about to let their biggest rivals get the last word.

Wisconsin players wielded Paul Bunyan’s Axe after the game and tried to “chop down” the Gophers’ goal post, but Minnesota players got in their way.

The two rivals exchanged colorful words in the end zone and nearly came to blows.

“It’s just a pride thing,” senior safety Brock Vereen said. “This is our stadium, and even after the clock hit zero, we still felt the need to protect it.”

The Gophers (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) came the closest they’ve been to beating Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1) in the Jerry Kill era, but three costly turnovers hampered the team.

“I’m proud of the kids for their effort and the way they played,” head coach Jerry Kill said. “We just didn’t make enough critical plays.”

Minnesota’s two first-half turnovers came in Wisconsin territory. Redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams fumbled at Wisconsin’s 32-yard line early in the second quarter, and sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson lost the ball near midfield late in the second quarter.

Junior running back David Cobb also lost a fumble midway through the third quarter.

“If [we] take those turnovers away, we might have a tie game against a very good football team,” Kill said.

That’s because Minnesota’s defense limited the Badgers to just 197 rushing yards — a modest total for an offense that had been averaging more than 300 rushing yards per game. The defense also gave the Gophers their only score of the game.

Redshirt senior linebacker Aaron Hill jumped a Joel Stave pass early in the second quarter and returned the interception 39 yards for a score.

That score gave the Gophers a 7-3 lead and electrified a record-setting crowd at TCF Stadium.

Wisconsin punted on its next possession, and the Gophers had a chance to go up by two scores before Nelson lost the fumble.

The Badgers took a 10-7 lead five plays later on a 1-yard run by James White and never trailed again.

Wisconsin’s defense — one of the best in the nation — forced Nelson and the Gophers’ offense out of their rhythm all game. Nelson finished 7-for-23 with just 83 passing yards, and Cobb rushed for a mere 68 yards, his lowest output in five games.

The Gophers hung around until late in the game, but the offense struggled to score — twice driving into Wisconsin territory in the fourth quarter and turning the ball over on downs.

“There was definitely a lack of rhythm on our part,” Nelson said. “We just didn’t make enough plays.”

Kill and his players were clear that playing Wisconsin to a 20-7 loss wasn’t a moral victory.

“We definitely don’t feel good about almost winning,” Cobb said. “It’s not so much about the Axe, but we feel like we can line up and beat anyone we play against.”

The Gophers close out the regular season next Saturday at Michigan State. Then it’s off to a bowl game — a destination the players still have control over.

“We’re not folding,” Vereen said. “Now it’s, ‘How good of a bowl game do we want to go to?’ … That’s definitely something to work toward.”