MADISON, Wis. — With only 36 seconds remaining Saturday, the Gophers’ defeat was almost complete. Wisconsin led by 17 points, and the Badgers had just recovered a Minnesota fumble.
But the raucous fans at Camp Randall Stadium weren’t satisfied. They started chanting, and three words quickly took over the stadium:
“We want Dayne! We want Dayne!”
Unfortunately for the fans, Badgers coach Barry Alvarez didn’t give the ball to tailback Ron Dayne. Rather, Alvarez did exactly what the crowd wished he’d done three weeks earlier against Northwestern. He told his quarterback to take a knee.
And so ended the Gophers’ latest loss. Wisconsin wound up with a 45-28 win, and the fans booed their coach for robbing them of the game’s only remaining drama — whether Dayne could reach 300 yards rushing.
The Gophers, however, were quite appreciative of Alvarez’s decision. With a great deal of help from his massive offensive line, Dayne physically dominated Minnesota’s defense like no one had all year. The 5-foot-10, 260-pound freshman had his way all day, running for 297 yards on a school-record 50 carries.
“They crunched us,” said Gophers coach Jim Wacker. “They flat crunched us.”
Considering the way Wisconsin (5-4 overall, 2-4 in the Big Ten) controlled the line, Minnesota never had much of a chance. The Badgers’ linemen, none of whom weigh less than 300 pounds, led their teammates to touchdowns on six of their seven opening possessions.
Despite trying numerous defensive formations, the smaller Gophers couldn’t stop them. It wasn’t a matter of execution; it was a matter of brute size and strength.
“It’s a coach’s worst nightmare,” Wacker said. “What do you tell them? … There’s not a whole lot of coaching strategy for that. Just wipe the blood off your nose and try harder next time, that’s about all you can tell them.”
For a while, however, Minnesota looked like it would be able to put up points right along with Wisconsin. The Gophers answered the Badgers’ opening touchdown drive with one of their own, primarily by moving the ball through the air.
But the Badgers got the break they needed to bust the game open immediately after their second touchdown. Gophers freshman Tyrone Carter fumbled the kickoff return, Wisconsin recovered, and two plays later Dayne marched into the end zone to make the score 20-7.
“He hit me low with his helmet on the ball,” Carter said about his fumble. “I didn’t see him coming. It was a critical point of the game. I know that it was my fault and everything. But we have to look at that as a standing point. We can’t get our heads down, but step things up and rise up a level.”
Minnesota (3-6, 0-6) wasn’t able to step up its game until the fourth quarter, and by then it was too late. Wisconsin led 42-13 at the end of the third, making it safe against any Gophers comeback.
“We never really thought we were out of it,” Gophers quarterback Cory Sauter said. “But we really had a big hole to come back from. It would’ve been tough.”
But it wasn’t just the loss that was hard on the Gophers — it was who they lost to. Losing to Wisconsin meant the Badgers kept control of the teams’ traveling trophy, Paul Bunyan’s Axe. As Minnesota walked off the field, Wisconsin’s players triumphantly flaunted the Axe to their fans, who quickly ceased in their booing of Alvarez and joined in the celebration.
In fact, the fans’ stomping feet could still be heard during Wacker’s post-game press conference, where the coach discussed the prospects of his remaining career at Minnesota. His season-long story line has finally come to a point — Wacker must resign unless the Gophers win their remaining two games.
“We knew there was a chance it could come down to that, obviously,” Wacker said. “It just makes it more exciting. Just like the big poker pot at the end of the night. All the chips on the table makes it fun.”
Minnesota 7 0 6 15 — 28
Wisconsin 7 21 14 3 — 45
Wis. — Dayne 8 run (Hall kick), 11:00
Minn. — Evans 3 run (Bailey kick), 6:30
Wis. — Merritt 7 pass from Samuel (Hall kick), 13:29
Wis. — Dayne 15 run (Hall kick), 12:41
Wis. — Dayne 2 run (Hall kick), 1:05
Minn. — Jackson 9 run (kick blocked), 12:51
Wis. — Lyles 10 pass from Samuel (Hall kick), 7:17
Wis. — McCullough 17 run (Hall kick), 0:29
Minn. — Safety, Michals tackled Samuel in end zone, 12:49
Minn. — Atwell 6 pass from Sauter (run failed), 10:31
Minn. — Atwell 43 pass from Sauter (Bailey kick), 6:59
Wis. — FG Hall 27, 2:59
A — 78,006
T — 3:15
First Downs: Minn. 18, Wis. 30. Rushing Yards: Minn. 88, Wis. 349. Passing Yards: Minn. 315, Wis. 137. Total Yards: Minn. 403, Wis. 486. Fumbles Lost: Minn. 2, Wis. 0. Possession Time: Minn. 22:03, Wis. 37:57.
RUSHING — Minnesota, Hamner 15-76, Jackson 4-19, Evans 4-13, Sauter 8-(-20). Wisconsin, Dayne 50-297, McCullough 7-46, Samuel 4-6.
PASSING — Minnesota, Sauter 16-22-0 315. Wisconsin, 11-13-0 137.
RECEIVING — Minnesota, Thelwell 5-142, Atwell 5-105, Duerr 1-19, Nelson 1-14, Leverson 1-13, Wyrick 1-10, Kratochvil 1-6, Hutton 1-6. Wisconsin, Hayes 5-100, Grams 2-16, Lyles 1-10, Dayne 1-7, Merritt 1-7, McCullough 1-(-3).