Gophers cut down Badgers, 42-31

by Anthony Maggio

There were still 12 seconds on the clock, but Minnesota’s Ron Johnson was already creeping toward the Wisconsin sideline.

His head start ensured Johnson would be the first player to touch Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday, and the Gophers 42-31 win made Johnson the first Minnesota player to hold the trophy since 1994.

“You can’t explain it, it’s just one of those things, you need to win it to find out how it feels,” Johnson said. “We finally found out.”

The win was only the second Big Ten victory for the Gophers this season, but coming against the rival Badgers made it an emotional affair.

“Those kids gave everything they had, and that’s why I have the greatest job in the world,” coach Glen Mason said. “To see those kids go around with that axe today, you can’t buy that.”

For the seniors, it was their last game in a Minnesota uniform, and they were ecstatic to go out with a border-battle victory.

“It’s like a dream come true,” safety Jack Brewer said. “Everything’s been going wrong, we’ve been losing, but to end it like this, it wipes everything away.”

However, amidst the celebration, the Gophers still finished the 2001 season with a 4-7 record (2-6 in the Big Ten). The mark is Minnesota’s worst since going 3-9 (1-7) in 1997, Mason’s first season.

The teams defeated by Minnesota this season won at a combined 40 percent clip.

“I would like to apologize for our record this year,” senior co-captain Jimmy Henry said. “We are a lot better team than we showed.”

Henry capped off his final game by intercepting a Brooks Bollinger pass inside Minnesota’s 10-yard line with two minutes left in the game to seal the victory.

Despite Henry’s interception, Minnesota’s defense had trouble containing Wisconsin’s attack until the fourth quarter.

The Badgers put the ball in the end zone on three of their first four drives, although one of the touchdowns should have been disallowed.

With 7:54 left in the second quarter, Wisconsin running back Anthony Davis, who finished with 208 rushing yards on the day, broke loose on a 61-yard run to paydirt.

Minnesota cornerback Mike Lehan caught Davis at the two-yard line and knocked the ball away before Davis crossed the goal line. But officials ruled the play a touchdown. As it turned out, the blown call wouldn’t matter.

Minnesota’s offense kept the Badgers guessing all afternoon, picking up 10 first downs both running and passing. Touchdowns also came balanced, with three through the air and three on the ground.

The Gophers picked up 15 or more yards on 11 plays Saturday, four of which were for touchdowns.

“We never came up with an answer for their offense,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. “Our offense did a lot of good things. But when you give up that many big plays, it’s difficult to win.”

Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq passed for 265 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for the Gophers final touchdown, putting the game out of reach.

Tight end Ben Utecht caught touchdown passes in the first half of 59 and 38 yards, picking up a career-high 104 yards.

Johnson caught a 45-yard touchdown pass but fell six receptions short of the 10 he needed to tie Tutu Atwell’s single-season record of 62.

On the ground, Tellis Redmon rushed for 128 yards to reach the 1,000-yard plateau for the second straight season. Redmon joins Darrell Thompson (1986-87) as the only other Minnesota running back to run for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.

Despite individual accolades, the Gophers had a losing record this season. Saturday’s win was the exception, not the rule.

“I don’t know if it was a fitting end to the 2001 season,” Mason said. “But it’s a good start to 2002.”

Abdul-Khaliq was excited to end the season on a positive note but disappointed about not going to a bowl game.

Johnson said defeating Wisconsin for the Axe “may even be better than a bowl game.”

Either way, it was a sweet end to a sour season.

Anthony Maggio welcomes comments at [email protected]