MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Gophers kept winning in a historic season, stakes surrounding their season-ending rivalry game with Wisconsin kept ratcheting up — outgrowing even the another annual Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
On Saturday, Nov. 30, at TCF Bank Stadium, the Big Ten West Division title and a spot in the conference championship game was on the line. ESPN’s “College GameDay” drew thousands to its first on-campus visit, and there were realistic odds for the Rose Bowl berth — and maybe, just maybe — a spot in the College Football Playoffs.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck fed the hype but also distanced his program from the big-picture stakes in case they fell short, which No. 8 Minnesota did in a 38-17 loss to 12th-ranked Wisconsin on a snowy Saturday in front of 53,000 fans.
“One game will not define us,” Fleck said on Tuesday. “Saturday, win or lose will not define where this program is headed, but it’s a huge game. It’s really exciting. Our players are excited. I’m sure Wisconsin is excited. There’s a lot on the line.”
With so many lofty possibilities, coming undone in losses to arch rivals Wisconsin and Iowa — a 23-19 defeat on Nov. 16 — cuts deeper for fans and the 13 seniors who played their last game in Minneapolis.
As Badgers players did snow angles on the field, Gophers seniors Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin and others quickly exited through the tunnel.
With the Rose Bowl dream likely dead, Minnesota’s best bowl bet appears to be the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on New Year’s Day.
But this season is a lot like 2014, when Minnesota lost the Axe and a West Division title to the Badgers in the regular-season finale before losing in the Citrus Bowl.
Saturday’s rewards went to Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten), who advance to their sixth Big Ten championship game. Minnesota (10-2, 7-2) failed to advance to its first.
Wisconsin hit Minnesota with two big touchdown plays to build a 24-10 lead going into the fourth quarter. Badgers receiver Quintez Cephus capitalizes on a matchup with linebacker Thomas Barber for a 47-yard touchdown.
After the Gophers settled for a field goal, Wisconsin called a reverse on the kickoff and it broke free for 56 yards. Two plays later, Wisconsin had a run-fake and handed it to receiver Kendrick Pryor on end-around that found daylight for a 26-yard touchdown.
Minnesota’s ensuing drive ended in a turnover on downs after a first and goal from Wisconsin’s 6-yard line.
Like in 2015, when Minnesota scored first on a Briean Boddy-Calhoun pick-six, the Gophers had a quick strike with a 51-yard touchdown connection from Morgan to Bateman after Wisconsin went three and out to start the game.
But besides that big play, the Gophers offense averaged 2.4 yards across their other 23 offensive snaps in the first half.
Minnesota couldn’t take advantage of Aron Cruickshank’s fumble, with Morgan throwing an interception three plays later. Wisconsin capitalized on the great field position at Minnesota’s 27 to cut their deficit to 7-3.
The Badgers took the lead on the next offensive series series with Jack Coan unwavering to a safety blitz from Antoine Winfield Jr. The pressure put defensive end Carter Couglin on Taylor, who caught a 27-yard touchdown pass.
Besides Morgan facing pressure on his pick, Gophers offense struggled with the Badgers’ defensive front, giving up three sacks in the first half.