Gophers get conservative on the biggest stage, Axe themselves out of game

Questionable calls throughout the game cost the Gophers Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

Wisconsin scores a touchdown late in the second quarter at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday, Nov. 30.

Parker Johnson

Wisconsin scores a touchdown late in the second quarter at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday, Nov. 30.

John Miller

Big-time moments call for big-time play calls. Head coach P.J. Fleck admitted he didn’t make them. “I apologize to our fans for not being able to get it done, because it falls on my shoulders,” he said. “I did not get it done for our fans.”

When the Gophers needed a big play, too often they chose to be conservative. Questionable decisions would be Minnesota’s downfall as they fell 38-17 against Wisconsin to lose Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the Big Ten West and a chance for more.

With the loss, the Gophers’ regular season is over and they await a bowl game assignment. 

“We weren’t a good enough team to win the Big Ten West today,” said Fleck. “You got to take your hat off to Wisconsin.”   

Things were looking good for Minnesota as they jumped out to an early 7-0 lead over Wisconsin after quarterback Tanner Morgan found wide receiver Rashod Bateman for a 51-yard touchdown pass.

Minnesota forced the Badgers to punt on the ensuing drive, giving the Gophers’ offense the opportunity to go up by two scores in the first quarter.

Minnesota’s offense continued to roll, as they made their way to the Wisconsin 35-yard line. On third-and-two, the Gophers ran the Wildcat formation with Seth Green. As he ran up the middle, the stout Badger defensive line was there to meet him for no gain.

Minnesota had a chance to assert its authority early on in the game by going for it on fourth down for a chance to extend their lead. Fleck decided against it, however, choosing instead to take a delay of game penalty to give punter Jacob Herbers more room to avoid kicking the ball into the end zone for a touchback.

“The biggest thing is the field position battle,” Fleck said. “It’s a fourth and a long two, you give Jonathan Taylor and that offense really good field position, now all of sudden if we don’t get that, now they march down the field – it’s 7-7. I felt like our defense was playing lights-out at that particular time.”

Despite dreadful weather conditions, Fleck didn’t believe the snow or cold had an effect on the game.

The Gophers defense could only contain Taylor and the Badgers offense for so long before they put points on the board. 

“Their offensive coordinator, give all props to him,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere said. “Their offensive line, those guys were firing off the ball coming up hard. Of course you guys know about their running backs, I mean they get that ball and they’re going to make something happen with it.”

Minnesota wouldn’t pass the opposing 35-yard line the rest of the first half and Wisconsin scored 10 unanswered points, going up 10-7 into halftime while going two-for-two on fourth downs in Gophers’ territory. 

“Offense just kind [of] lost control of our details and we just didn’t execute well as a unit after that,” Bateman said.

Morgan had the chains moving as the Gophers would near Wisconsin territory on the opening drive of the second half, making it all the way to midfield. On third-and-10, Minnesota opted to hand the ball of to Rodney Smith, who was contained for a one-yard gain, forcing a Minnesota punt.

The conservative play calling would come back to sting the Gophers. Four plays later, the Badgers finished a 91-yard drive as Jack Coan threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Quintez Cephus, extending the lead to 17-7. 

Needing to rally before the game got out of hand, Minnesota’s offense tried to answer the call. A 36-yard run by sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim set up the Gophers right outside of the red zone. After two incomplete passes by Morgan, the Gophers called a timeout to contemplate what to call on third-and-10. Out of the timeout, Minnesota again handed the ball off, this time to Ibrahim who picked up two yards, forcing a Minnesota field goal try. Kicker Michael Lantz hit the 38-yard field goal to cut the deficit to a touchdown.

Wisconsin wasted no time in putting up more points on the board. After a kick return made its way to the Minnesota 39-yard line, the Badgers scored two plays later on a 26-yard rush by junior wide receiver Kendric Pryor to give the Badgers a 24-10 lead. 

Needing a score to start the fourth quarter to keep the game within reach, Minnesota’s offense made their way inside Wisconsin’s five-yard line. After being stopped on the first two downs, Minnesota attempted a pair of back-shoulder throws to Tyler Johnson, both of which fell incomplete. Wisconsin scored quickly on the next possession, sealing Minnesota’s fate.

While the regular season came to a disappointing end, the team far exceeded preseason expectations, going 9-0 for the first time since 1904 and winning seven Big Ten games for the first time in school history. They remain in the running for a New Year’s Day bowl game. 

“We’ve restored people’s beliefs of what we can do, let’s not go back,” Fleck said. “You don’t have to worry about that anymore, so let it go.”