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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Gophers reclaim Paul Bunyan’s Axe with 23-13 win over Wisconsin

The Gophers (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten) learned Friday they couldn’t win the Big Ten West on tiebreakers but were able to keep the Badgers (8-4, 6-3) out of the Big Ten Championship Game, too.

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Minnesota Gophers players rush to celebrate with the Paul Bunyan Axe trophy after their victory against the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Harrison Barden / USA Today Sports
USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- The University of Minnesota football team hasn’t treated their fans to a home win in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe since they played in the Metrodome, way back in 2003. After the Gophers retook the lead late in the third quarter Saturday, the 49,736 fans at Huntington Bank Stadium could feel that streak snapping.

Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the first half, but bounced back with a 27-yard touchdown to Chris Autman-Bell for a lead the Gophers wouldn’t give back in a 23-13 win over No. 14 Wisconsin.

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Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell (7) outraces Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Faion Hicks to score the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 23-13. Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA Today Network
USA TODAY Sports

Players were raced to the Axe before the final seconds ticked off the clock, and fans joined them soon afterward. With the field becoming a sea of people, U then trolled Wisconsin by playing “Jump Around,” the song played before fourth quarters at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

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The Gophers (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten) learned Friday they couldn’t win the Big Ten West on tiebreakers but were able to keep the Badgers (8-4, 6-3) out of the Big Ten Championship Game, too. They would have clinched the Big Ten West and a trip to Indianapolis with a win; instead, Iowa (10-2, 7-2) will play Michigan (11-1, 8-1) for the Big Ten title.

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and his team were seven-point underdogs, but Fleck improved to 2-3 against Wisconsin since 2017. It was only his second win in 20 games when trailing at the half. The Gophers’ defense held Badgers star running back Braelen Allen in check with only 17 carries for 47 yards. He had 100-yard games in their seven-game winning streak.

The excitement in the on-campus stadium began to build when the Badgers had a 48-yard field goal attempt bounce off the crossbar and out early in the fourth quarter, and approached a crescendo when Minnesota made it a two-score game at 23-13 with a 36-yard field goal.

At start the second half, Minnesota smacked the Badgers to retake the lead, 13-10. Cornerback Justin Walley stole the ball from Badgers receiver Kendric Pryor for an interception on the first series, and U scored their first touchdown of the game two plays later.

Two things mistakes put Minnesota behind, 10-6, at the half — Morgan’s first pass of the second quarter was tipped by linebacker Noah Burks, intercepted by Scott Nelson and returned 25 yards for the only touchdown of the first half. The second was two Gophers drives that stalled in the red zone, an issue in their loss to Iowa earlier this month. Matthew Trickett capped those drives with field goals, but one big points-producing turnover and field goals on the other end were the difference.

On the second drive into the red zone, the Gopher ran straight at one of the nation’s best run defenses for one yard and two on first and second downs.

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Minnesota Gophers defensive back Justin Walley (0) intercepts a pass intended for Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Kendric Pryor during the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Huntington Bank Stadium. Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

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Then on third and long, Chris Autman-Bell nearly came down with a contested catch in the corner of the end zone despite contact from the Badgers defensive back. There was no flag for defensive pass interference, and the U had to settle for 31-yard field goal.

On the next drive, Minnesota defensive back Justin Walley was flagged for pass interference with even less contact than Autman-Bell had to deal with. Gophers coaches argued the call, but Wisconsin punted anyway.

Minnesota had 3-0 lead after the first quarter. Their opening drive included three third-down conversions, but on the fourth attempt, a screen pass to Brevyn Spann-Ford went for six yards on third-and-10. Faced with fourth-and4, Fleck opted to kick a 28-yard field goal from Wisconsin’s 11.

Wisconsin’s first drive went 85-yards over 15 plays before they tied the game, 3-3, early in the second quarter.

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