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Minnesota loses Paul Bunyan’s Axe in late season skid

The Gophers lost each of their last four games of the season after being 5-3 against Illinois in week 10.
Image by Amaya Battle
Gophers wide receiver Daniel Jackson pulls in a pass from Athan Kaliakmanis from inside the 10 yard line. Jackson finished the game with nine receptions, 121 yards and a touchdown.

The inability to execute in the second half on Saturday bit Minnesota football’s chances at reaching six wins as the Wisconsin Badgers scored 21 unanswered points in a 28-14 loss.

Heading into the weekend, Minnesota and Wisconsin were tied in the all-time series at 62-62-8. The rivalry began in 1890, but the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe started in 1948. Since then, the Badgers have led the series 45-27-3.

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, during the post-game press conference, said the 2023 season was one of readjustments.

“I’ve kind of named it the readjustment year,” Fleck said. “There’s a lot of things to adjust moving forward. A lot of things to evaluate but there are a lot of things outside of our control.”

Minnesota’s running back room has been decimated by injuries all year and was without running backs Darius Taylor and Zach Evans for the final regular season game. On defense, linebacker Maverick Baranowski and safety Darius Green, both injured last week versus Purdue, were out as well.

Wisconsin won the toss and elected to defer, giving Minnesota the start on offense.

Gophers quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis found redshirt sophomore running back Jordan Nubin wide open in the flat on the first play for a gain of 19 yards. Kaliakmanis then lofted the ball near the sideline to his favorite receiver this season, Daniel Jackson. The route was impeded during the attempted catch, resulting in a defensive pass interference.

After picking up 15 yards of penalty yardage, Kaliakmanis found Jackson on a drag over the middle for a 30-yard catch and run. Two plays later, Jordan powered his way into the end-zone, capping off a six-play, 72-yard drive in just over two and a half minutes.

Defensive lineman Kyler Baugh got his paws on a pass on third-and-four to end Wisconsin’s opening drive. Badgers punter Atticus Bertrams sent a 44-yard punt to Minnesota and was downed at their 14-yard line.

With a thin running back room, Minnesota leaned on Jordan early. He received his fifth touch of the game on the first play of the second drive and took it for seven yards.

The Gophers failed to cross the first down and held the Badgers to a three-and-out. Minnesota could not produce enough forward movement against Wisconsin’s front seven and handed possession back to the Badgers after a three-and-out of their own.

The Badgers picked up a first down on quarterback Tanner Mordecai’s pass to receiver Will Pauling. Gophers cornerback Tariq Watson, filling in for Tre’Von Jones, was injured on the play and left the game.

Mordecai scrambled for a 19-yard gain across midfield into Minnesota territory the next play. Badgers halfback Braelon Allen, getting the bulk of the Badgers’ offensive load, picked up 21 yards to start the second quarter.

Mordecai continued to utilize his legs, making linebacker Cody Lindenberg miss in open space and picking up 15 yards on a scramble. Allen got the edge and waltzed into the end-zone to tie the game 7-7 with 13:04 left in the half.

With 13:04 left, Allen and Mordecai led the Badgers’ rushing attack and combined for 13 carries for 98 yards, meaning 7.5 yards per carry. Both of the teams’ following drives concluded in three-and-outs.

Minnesota’s offense got to third-and-seven when Kaliakmanis found his tight end, Brevyn Spann-Ford, over the middle for a gain of eight yards.

The struggling Gophers’ rushing attack finally popped a 10-yard run by Jordan for another first down. Minnesota had 14 rushes for just 36 yards, only 2.6 yards per carry.

Two pass interference calls later, Kaliakmanis rifled one into the arms of Jackson for Jackson’s team-leading eighth touchdown of the season. Minnesota reclaimed the lead 14-7 with 4:30 left in the second quarter.

Mordecai hit receiver Chimere Dike for a 35-yard gain and connected with Allen on the next two plays for 29 yards, moving into the Gophers’ red zone.

On the fourth play of the drive, Mordecai hit Pauling in the corner of the end-zone for a touchdown, tying the game 14-14 with 2:38 left in the half.

Minnesota fans booed after a run on third-and-five that resulted in no gain and a subsequent punt.

The Badgers moved the ball, but with time expiring on the half, Mordecai’s Hail Mary attempt was intercepted by fifth-year defensive back Tyler Nubin. Tyler became the all-time interceptions leader in school history with 13 interceptions as a Gopher.

During the post-game press conference, Tyler said breaking the record was not an individual effort.

“Obviously I’m aware of it and it’s special, something that I didn’t really think was going to happen for me when I first got here,” Tyler said. “Looking back on it, I’ll probably think it’s cooler tomorrow than it is today. I couldn’t have done that without my coaches. … Those 13 interceptions are defense interceptions.”

Tyler has previously talked about the record unselfishly. When asked about it after his 12th interception against Illinois, he said he returned to the Gophers to win games, not to break records.

The “Border Battle” headed into halftime deadlocked at 14-14.

Allen began the second half the same way he finished the first, picking up 20 yards on his first carry. Baugh made another crucial play on third down, shedding his block and tackling a scrambling Mordecai to force the Badgers to punt.

Allen took Wisconsin’s first play of their following offensive drive for 50 yards, making Lindenberg and Tyler Bride miss along the way. The Badgers’ star running back walked into the end-zone on the next play, giving Wisconsin their first lead of the game, 21-14.

Minnesota decided to go for it on fourth-and-one on their own 38-yard line with a toss to Jordan to the outside. He picked up the first down, an additional 16 yards and entered Wisconsin territory. However, Kaliakmanis’ errant throw on third-and-seven resulted in the Gophers electing to punt the ball back to the Badgers.

Mordecai threw a perfectly placed ball to tight end, Hayden Rucci, on a seam route and picked up 25 yards. After stopping Badgers running back Cade Yacamelli’s 13-yard run, junior defensive back Justin Walley stayed down after the play, adding another injury to the Minnesota secondary.

Mordecai launched a deep ball to Dike in the end-zone, but Bride impeded his attempt to catch it, drawing a pass interference penalty. Two plays later, Mordecai rolled to his right and dumped the ball off to tight end Riley Nowakowski, who scampered into the end zone, extending the Badgers’ lead to 28-14 with 10 seconds left in the third quarter.

Minnesota methodically worked its way down the field, but Jackson dropped a tunnel screen on third down. A peculiar play call on a fourth-and-nine, going deep to receiver Chris Autman-Bell, resulted in a turnover on downs.

The Gophers defense held up its end of the bargain, forcing a Wisconsin three-and-out. Jackson caught a ball on a dig route inside the numbers, but a tackle by Badgers linebacker Jordan Turner from behind led to Jackson fumbling the ball over.

The Badgers burned 3:45 off the clock before Minnesota eventually stood tall on third down, forcing a punt. Kaliakmanis, on the Gophers’ first play of the drive, made an undisciplined throw directly to Wisconsin defensive back Ricardo Hallman, who intercepted it, giving the Badgers possession.

Wisconsin went on to burn the remaining time on the clock and walked out of Minneapolis with a 28-14 win. The game was a brutal conclusion to the 2023 regular season, as the Gophers, after dropping three straight games, watched their rivals to the east chop down the Huntington Bank Stadium goalposts with Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

Lindenberg, during the post-game press conference, summed up the late-season struggle with losing, especially to a long-time rival.

“Losing hurts, no matter what, and these ones always hurt a little bit more,” an emotional Lindenberg said. “Especially the seniors, you want to do it for them. Hopefully, we get a bowl game, it’s not guaranteed. So hopefully it’s not the last time we get to play with them.”

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