Gophers can’t claim Axe

Minnesota lost its shot at the Big Ten title game when it fell to Wisconsin 34-24.

Jack Satzinger

MADISON, Wis. — Just over 15 minutes into Minnesota’s game at Wisconsin on Saturday, the Gophers had built up a 14-point lead.

The Big Ten West was theirs, and it looked like the Gophers would rip Paul Bunyan’s Axe out of the Badgers’ grip for the first time since 2003.

But Minnesota’s offense sputtered in the contest’s final three quarters as Wisconsin won 34-24.

“We were right there. This was a game that could actually get us to a Big Ten championship,” senior safety Cedric Thompson said.

Senior running back David Cobb, improbably playing on an injured left hamstring, rushed for 95 first-half yards to break Laurence Maroney’s single-season program rushing record.

“The first half was just playing with juice — playing with energy,” Cobb said. “We kind of got in a rhythm.”

The Badgers corralled the running back for just 23 yards in the second half, putting pressure on redshirt sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner to carry the offense with his arm.

Leidner couldn’t pull through for Minnesota (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten), going just 5-for-18 for 95 passing yards.

“They were able to get some pressure on me on third down and different blitzes,” Leidner said. “I think they just move around well.”

He didn’t hit leading receiver Maxx Williams until the fourth quarter, when the athletic tight end turned upfield for 53 yards.

Leidner capped the drive off with a 2-yard touchdown run. But by that time, Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) had worn down Minnesota’s defense, head coach Jerry Kill said.

The Gophers were desperate for a stop, but Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon had other plans.

The running back rattled off three consecutive runs before quarterback Joel Stave hit Alex Erickson for 31 yards and then found Robert Wheelwright in the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown.

“That kid’s a heck of a player,” Kill said of Gordon, who finished with 151 rushing yards. “I said that he was going to get some yards, but we couldn’t let anybody else get started. Stave had a good day today.”

Stave more than doubled Leidner’s output with 215 passing yards, going 11-for-18 in the process. His biggest completion of the day was a 70-yard dart to Erickson midway through the second quarter that set up Wisconsin’s first touchdown of the game.

Minnesota methodically marched down the field and worked its way into field-goal range with less than a minute remaining in the half. Then Cobb fumbled, and the Badgers recovered the ball.

With just 18 seconds to work with, Stave found Erickson for 35- and 14-yard completions to set up a Wisconsin field goal to narrow Minnesota’s lead to just four points heading into the third quarter.

Kill called the fumble and subsequent six-point swing the “switch” that changed the game.

“We had momentum. I think we had real good momentum and then they got momentum,” Kill said. “We could have been up more.”

Kill said his team’s preseason mission was to win the Big Ten championship despite a tougher schedule than previous seasons.

“I don’t think anybody else thought we’d have the opportunity to do that, but the kids did,” he said.

With that mission close to accomplished, the Gophers walked off the field as the Badgers celebrated with Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 11th consecutive season. They didn’t seem interested in the moral victory of playing their border rivals close.

“Being close only counts in horseshoes,” Kill said. “We just didn’t get it done.”