Badgers exhibit rare air attack

Brett Angel

If it had not been for the estimated 35,000 Badgers fans who turned sections of the Metrodome into seas of red and the presence of Wisconsin’s marching band on the sideline, it would have been easy to mistake Minnesota’s opponent on the football field Saturday for a team other than Wisconsin.

In his 14 years as the Badgers coach, Barry Alvarez has made a name for himself with a grind-it-out smashmouth-style offense that typically punishes opposing defenses on the ground.

Even with star running back Anthony Davis sidelined for much of this season because of ankle injuries, Wisconsin (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) had averaged 189.8 yards rushing in its first nine games. That number is second in the Big Ten behind Minnesota (9-2, 5-2).

But with Davis sidelined again Saturday and the Gophers’ defense inspired by defensive tackle Darrell Reid’s mid-week guarantee it would not allow a 100-yard rusher, Wisconsin’s running game sputtered and totaled just 119 yards rushing in its 37-34 loss.

“On a Barry Alvarez team, if they could have run the ball for 300 yards they would have,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “We did a very good job defending the run today.”

Forced into taking a different approach, Wisconsin’s offense opened things up through the passing game. The result was something Badger fans haven’t seen in a decade.

Quarterback Jim Sorgi became the first Wisconsin player to throw four touchdown passes in a single game since Darrell Bevell in 1993.

The Badgers’ fifth-year senior completed 23 of his 34 pass attempts in the game for 305 yards. It was also the first time a Wisconsin player threw for 300 yards in a game since Bevell did so in 1995.

Even more impressive, Sorgi had arguably the best performance of his collegiate career in his first game following arthroscopic surgery Oct. 19 to repair a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee.

“I was having a blast out there,” Sorgi said. “It’s been a long time since I felt that good playing football.”

Well aware that he hadn’t played in three weeks, Minnesota’s defense came after Sorgi the whole game. The Gophers registered just one sack – by Ben West – but repeatedly knocked Sorgi to the Metrodome turf.

To his credit, Sorgi remained calm just about every time he faced defensive pressure, often delivering the ball to his receivers in stride before getting a face-full of maroon and gold.

“He’s a tough guy,” Minnesota safety Eli Ward said. “Especially coming off a knee scope he knew we were going to come after him and he didn’t flinch. He stood in the pocket and made some big throws.”

Sixteen of Sorgi’s 23 completions went for first downs, and his patience in the pocket helped Wisconsin convert 60 percent of its third downs (nine-of-15) overall.

“A couple of the hits hurt,” Sorgi admitted afterward. “I just kept telling myself to get up. It was going to take a heck of a lot for me to come out of that ballgame.”

While Minnesota’s defense was able to hold Wisconsin to field goals on two lengthy scoring drives in the first half, the Gophers had trouble stopping the Badgers’ aerial assault once Wisconsin committed to the passing game.

Sorgi fired touchdown passes to receivers Owen Daniels and Lee Evans on consecutive possessions before and after halftime to pull Wisconsin within 24-20.

After a Rhys Lloyd field goal increased Minnesota’s lead to seven midway through the third quarter, Sorgi pulled the Badgers even with a 12-yard touchdown toss to Darrin Charles.

With Minnesota’s defense reeling and chants of “Let’s go Badgers” ringing throughout the Metrodome, it appeared Sorgi would give Wisconsin the lead early in the game’s final stanza.

But Minnesota safety Justin Isom intercepted Sorgi after receiver Brandon Williams and Sorgi made different reads on a deep route.

“That was huge,” said Isom, who finished with eight tackles, the interception and two passes defended. “Fortunately, I was able to make a big play and give our team a chance. But he’s a great quarterback. Watching him on film, he’s up there with the best of them.”

Isom’s interception seized the momentum for the Gophers, who formed the game’s only turnover into seven points on Marion Barber III’s subsequent 11-yard touchdown run.

Sorgi was able to engineer an

80-yard touchdown drive on the

Badgers’ ensuing possession to re-tie the game. But Minnesota’s defense forced Wisconsin into a three-and-out on the Badgers’ final possession and the interception proved to be the difference in what was an otherwise stellar and gutty performance by Sorgi.

“He stood in there and showed a lot of resiliency,” Wisconsin offensive coordinator Brian White said. “He really played a fantastic game. It’s unfortunate that his performance couldn’t be celebrated with a win.”