No. 6 Wisconsin struggled in all three phases of the game in the first half, but out-scored Minnesota 21-0 in the fourth quarter for the 31-17 comeback victory over Minnesota at Camp Randall Stadium. The first half was ugly for the Badgers. Minnesota out-gained Wisconsin 226-144 in the opening half and led 17-7 and Bucky was fortunate it was not worse. Starting running back Corey Clement had 11 carries for just 26 yards and wide receivers had key drops in the half. It was the first time Wisconsin had trailed by double digits since the season opener in 2015 against Alabama. But the Badgers, specifically the defense, showed up in a big way in the last 30 minutes. Wisconsin forced Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner to throw four interceptions, which led to 14 Badgers points. In addition to the takeaways, the defense held the Gophers to 60 yards in the second half. It was total domination in the final 30 minutes and that performance propelled Wisconsin to an outright Big Ten West championship. The Badgers will play Penn State in Indianapolis in the Big Ten Championship game.
After an extremely slow start, the defense was spectacular once again. In the first half, Minnesota had six possessions and scored 17 points with four of the six drives ending in Wisconsin territory. As mentioned above, the Gophers had 226 yards of offense in the first half, but ended up with 286 for the game. The previous two weeks, the Badgers defense had picked off seven passes, and picked off four more against Minnesota to bring the total to 21 for the season, which is tops in the country. The first interception by Wisconsin was the turning point in the game. With Minnesota leading 17-10 in the third quarter, Leidner threw a pass intended for Rashad Still in the end zone, but was intercepted by Leo Musso to turn away the Gophers and keep it a one score game. The next two picks led to two touchdowns to help give the Badgers a 31-17 lead. Wisconsin was able to hold a potent Minnesota ground attack to 128 yards and just a 3.4-yard average. Nearly half of the rushing yardage came on its opening drive. The Gophers also had 32 rushing touchdowns coming in, but were held to just one this past Saturday. Rodney Smith, who many believe is one of the best running backs in the Big Ten, was held to 45 yards on 13 carries. Wisconsin also added five sacks against a Minnesota team that had only allowed nine sacks going into the game. One of those sacks was by nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, who hadn't played in nearly a month and a half. The most important stat, though, is the zero points allowed by the Badgers in the second half. Well done, defense.
Playing in his last game at Camp Randall Stadium, Bart Houston played really well in relief of Alex Hornibrook, who left the game in the second quarter with a head injury. Normally he plays a few drives a game as a change-up from Hornibrook, but he had to play most of the game against the Gophers. After having to sit behind Joel Stave for three years, he could have transferred to another school and played right away. Instead, Houston waited his turn, but then was benched just three games into this season in favor of the freshman Hornibrook. The freshman was hurt after a hit in the second quarter and was forced to miss the rest of the game, but Houston came to the rescue. The senior completed 9-of-14 passes for 123 yards and led the Badgers to all their points. Wisconsin will still use the two quarterback system when Hornibrook is ready to go, but Houston showed tremendous poise to lead the team to a comeback victory. I salute you, Bart.
The last two games, Wisconsin has gotten off to a bad start. Against Purdue, Bucky struggled in the first quarter (trailing 3-0) before blowing the doors off the Boilermakers in the second quarter. Once again, the Badgers trailed 3-0 after the first, but it took the team a bit longer to get going this time around. After three quarters, Minnesota led 17-10. Bucky took advantage of Leidner mistakes to outscore Goldy 21-0 in the final quarter. The Badgers will need to start faster against Penn State and in the bowl game. Wisconsin was able to get away with that against Minnesota and Purdue, but won’t be able to against tougher competition. Drops are also becoming a bit of a concern. Jazz Peavy had a few against Purdue and had another bad one against Minnesota. Rob Wheelwright also had a big one in the first half against the Gophers that would have kept a drive alive. They’ll need to clean that up moving forward.
With it being Senior Day, it was fitting that a number of seniors made huge plays to help Wisconsin come back to beat its bitter rival. It was a small class, but they came up huge against the Gophers. I already mentioned the play of Houston, who was efficient through the air in his last home game. Two more seniors, Sojourn Shelton and Leo Musso, had three of the four interceptions for the Badgers. Two of those picks were crucial turning points in the game. Clement rushed for more than 100 yards and a pair of scores and Dare Ogunbowale scored the game-clinching touchdown late in the game. Rob Wheelwright only had two catches in the game, but he had a big 16-yard reception to move the Badgers to the doorstep of a tie game early in the fourth quarter. And finally, Vince Biegel added eight tackles and an impressive sack late in the game. Hats off to the senior class.
Wisconsin only has two games remaining this season, starting with Penn State next Saturday. If anybody were to tell me at the beginning of the season that the Badgers would make the Big Ten Championship game, I would have thought you were crazy. Bucky also has a shot at the playoffs with a win and a loss by either Washington or Clemson. Wisconsin, despite having the division wrapped up, played a great second half against Minnesota to keep the axe. It sets up the top 10 showdown next week against Penn State, which has won eight consecutive games. The Nittany Lions average nearly 37 points per game, while Wisconsin gives up fewer than 14 per game. It should be a great game in Indianapolis.