Badgers keep Axe in Madison

Minnesota battled but came up empty-handed as they fell 41-34 to the Badgers.

Luke Middendorf

The adrenaline and anticipation that builds up to a rivalry game can give the underdog team a much-needed momentum boost, propelling them into the game with some undeserved confidence.

During the first half of the annual Minnesota/Wisconsin border battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the lackluster Gophers portrayed the intensity that head coach Tim Brewster said he expected for such an important game.

But the extra boost of energy only brought the Gophers so far, as the Badgers’ talent and veteran play carried them past a late comeback by Minnesota (1-11 overall, 0-8 Big Ten) for a 41-34 win.

“We really had nothing to lose and we were playing with an awful lot of emotion for the seniors,” senior safety Dominique Barber said after the game. “I feel as though we hit ’em in the mouth right away.”

Although Brewster attempted to build up the game as much as possible – talking all week about the importance of stealing back the Axe, creating a Gophers pep rally on Friday night and making a final call for all Minnesota fans to attend the Gopher Victory Walk before the game – none of the lofty goals were completed in their entirety because of Minnesota’s uninterested fan base in the culmination of the Gophers’ winless Big Ten campaign.

“We (Minnesota) did some great things today, but we didn’t win the football game,” Brewster said. “That’s what we’re here to do at the University of Minnesota is win football games.”

For the second straight week the Gophers out-gained their opponent in total offense (501-443) but failed to come away with the victory, which on Saturday was mostly due to Minnesota’s untimely mental miscues.

“We played well overall, but we made a few mistakes and you can’t do that against a good team,” senior receiver Ernie Wheelwright said.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, was neither flashy nor overly energized in their victory over the Gophers, but rather capitalized on Minnesota’s mistakes, took advantage of the clock and out-played the Gophers on special teams in order to keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

The Badgers’ return man and Minnesota native David Gilreath reminded Brewster of why he wants to keep the state border closed in recruiting, as the freshman routinely gave Wisconsin great field position on each punt and kick that he returned.

Gilreath single-handedly changed the complexion of the game with his speed in special teams, gaining 234 yards of total offense during the game.

“Gilreath had a huge impact on the game today,” Badger coach Bret Bielema said. “He made some big returns that gave us short yardage situations.”

In comparison, Gophers freshman return man Harold Howell had negative yardage in his two punt returns; the most costly with six minutes left as Howell misread a long punt near the end zone and fumbled the ball.

Wisconsin coincidentally had a man in perfect place to recover the fumble, which led to a Wisconsin touchdown run only moments later.

To give Minnesota a fighting chance, freshman quarterback Adam Weber was able to keep Minnesota’s offense on the field, putting up impressive numbers of 99 yards on the ground and 352 yards in passing.

Weber was able to find the Gophers’ top two targets often in the often inconsistent spread offense, hitting Wheelwright for seven receptions and 92 yards and sophomore Eric Decker for six and 125.

But in his chance to lead the offense down the field with 1:25 remaining in the game, Weber reminded the crowd that he is still a freshman by throwing his second interception of the day, permanently putting the cap on the Gophers frustrating 2007 season.

“We played hard and we gave it all we had,” Weber said. “We never gave up and we kept on fighting.”

After the game, Brewster acknowledged the character of his 1-11 football team, saying they “haven’t quit a snap all season long.”

Although Brewster and most of his team will be able to quickly put this season in the past and start working toward next year, the 16 seniors in comparison will have a lot of time to reflect, and can only hope that their efforts helped to boost this team into the future.

“It’s all about trying to pass on work ethic and attitude and hope that all the positive things that we had to offer as a senior class rubbed off on the younger guys,” senior captain and linebacker Mike Sherels said.

Brewster could give the seniors only words of encouragement until the effort turns into victories for the Gophers.

“We told the seniors that they are a part of any success we’ll have in the future,” he said. “Those guys are going to take pride in knowing that they were here at the beginning; that they were here at the start of it.”

Brewster also said that he will have no time to reflect and look back on his first season, but instead will get up in the morning excited as ever and ready to go back to work to recruit and prepare for the future.

“We’re going to be a much improved football team next season,” Brewster said with his positive grin. “The vision and direction of this program is in excellent shape and the potential of where we’re going to go excites me greatly.”