Gophers win the Axe for the first time since 2018

The Gophers take a group picture at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on Saturday, Nov. 24. The Gophers beat the Badgers 37-15 for the first time since 2003.

Tony Saunders

The Gophers take a group picture at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on Saturday, Nov. 24. The Gophers beat the Badgers 37-15 for the first time since 2003.

by Matthew Kennedy, Sports Reporter

Since 2003, Minnesota has been walloped by Wisconsin who has dominated ownership of Paul Bunyan’s Axe in the 21st century. On Saturday, the Gophers threw away all of that wretched history and beat the Badgers 23-13.

A physical start set the tone for the rest of the game when Chris-Autman Bell hauled in an 11-yard reception and was hit helmet-to-helmet by Collin Wilder. Wilder was ejected from the game on targeting which set up a period of “ref ball”. There were eight total penalties in the first half for each team totaling 80 yards. Those penalties would work in mostly the Badgers’ favor, who timely escaped from key third-down stops by Minnesota on their first drive.

Similar to how the Gophers started in Bloomington, Ind. the previous week, their first drive of the game was lengthy. The seven-minute drive resulted in a converted 28-yard field goal by Matthew Trickett. The Gophers ate the clock up like they have all season long on offense.

Wisconsin on their next drive duplicated the Gophers’ last possession by draining 10 minutes and taking their time to score a 25-yard field goal to tie the game three apiece.

Deja vu to the 2019 Axe game’s opening second-quarter drive occurred for Tanner Morgan as his pass was tipped and intercepted by the Badgers deep in Gophers territory. Scott Nelson took the pick back for a touchdown, giving Wisconsin their first lead, 10-3, with 12 minutes remaining in the half.

“In the NFL you have quarterbacks throwing for two, three, four, five interceptions,” Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said about Morgan’s lone mishap. “I’m so proud of him for all the criticism he takes, he handles it with dignity and respect. Especially for everything that he’s been through and the things that have been written about him, which in my opinion are inappropriate at times. He’s a kid, he’s a student-athlete, but he’s a powerful force. He’s a winner.”

Besides the single interception, Morgan had one of his more impressive days at quarterback to date, throwing 11/16 for 199 yards and a touchdown. His most notable drive was in the third quarter, passing for 54 yards and connecting with Autman-Bell for a 27-yard touchdown to give the Gophers their biggest lead of the game at 20-13. Morgan’s favorite target of the game was Brevyn Spann-Ford who hauled in 3 catches for 62 yards.

The Gophers defensive line feasted on Wisconsin’s offensive line, which is a rarity in this rivalry. Braelon Allen had serious trouble trying to find holes, forcing Graham Mertz to take the lead in the passing game, which did not work well in Wisconsin’s favor. Allen, who entered the game with the FBS lead in 7.59 yards per carry, finished with a mere 2.8.

“That back is one of the best backs in the country…we had to hit him low and swarm,” Fleck said about Allen. “When guys got a hand on him they held on for dear life and everybody rallied around them”.

All around, the Gophers defense had quite a day. The defensive MVP of the game was defensive back Justin Walley, who picked off Graham Mertz on the opening drive of the second half. The Justin Walley show would continue on the next Badgers drive as the freshman corner made another key defensive play by tackling Jake Ferguson behind the sticks to limit the Badgers to a field goal that would tie the game 13-13.

Trickett capped off his perfect day (3/3) in the fourth quarter by nailing a 36-yard field goal with 6 minutes left. That would end up sealing the game at 23-13 as Mertz and Co. couldn’t muster a ten-point comeback against the Gophers’ solid defensive effort.

“Playing in games like that is the reason why I wanted to come here,” said Abilene Christian transfer Jack Gibbens. “It’s what you dream of doing when you’re a little kid so playing in front of this home crowd and getting the win was awesome.” Gibbens led the team in tackles with 10 and 1 tackle for loss.

The Gophers finish the regular season with a record of 8-4. Due to Iowa’s 19-point fourth-quarter comeback at Nebraska to win 28-21, Minnesota will finish 2nd in the Big Ten West. They await their bowl game fate which will be decided on Sunday, December 5th.