Minnesota kind of ruined Wisconsin’s football season and the final home game of UW Marching Band director Mike Leckrone by beating the Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium one year ago.
Well, you know what payback is.
We begin with Megan Ryan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Rashod Bateman’s eyes shimmered. Tanner Morgan’s voice hitched.
But Winston DeLattiboudere looked like he always does: upbeat.
The Gophers had just left the TCF Bank Stadium field Saturday drenched with sweat and melted snow, disheartened from a 38-17 defeat to border rival Wisconsin. This loss didn’t just lose them Paul Bunyan’s Axe and the bragging rights that go with it. It lost the Gophers a chance at their first Big Ten Championship Game and likely their first Rose Bowl since 1962.
Bateman and Morgan, as sophomores, have two more opportunities to reach that goal and more. DeLattiboudere is done, just a bowl game left a long month from now before the final grain of sand in the timer of his college career falls.
Yet the underclassmen were visibly dejected, guilt heavy on their shoulders. They felt personally responsible for letting a close game — they trailed by three points at halftime — escalate into a blowout loss.
“My job was to go out there and play every snap as hard as I can for them because I just wanted to see them go out with a bang,” Bateman said of the seniors. “But we failed at that.”
DeLattiboudere, though, was doing exactly what players in this senior class have done their entire careers and especially this extraordinary season: leading.
“I’m overcome with emotion,” DeLattiboudere admitted, saying seeing his mom about to cry after the game nearly got to him. “But I feel like the young guys — everybody else in this senior class knows just as well as I know — that they look to us, that they’re going to mimic our behavior, our actions. And right now, it’s OK to be upset. We’re human beings. But we’ve got to keep our head held high because we’ve got one more game to play.”
They could have had at least two. All the No. 8 Gophers (10-2) had to do was beat No. 12 Wisconsin in front of a sold-out home crowd of 53,756 to keep their goals of a conference title, Rose Bowl or even College Football Playoff appearance still intact.
For about three minutes, the Gophers held those in their grasp. The defense forced a three-and-out, and the offense scored a 51-yard touchdown pass from Morgan to Bateman on the second play to take the early lead.
But that was the last time the Gophers commanded the game. Even when DeLattiboudere forced a fumble that Carter Coughlin recovered, Morgan threw an interception into double coverage on the resulting possession. Wisconsin used that takeback to score its first points, a 26-yard field goal.
From there, it was pretty much an onslaught. While the Gophers statistically achieved their goal of limiting Wisconsin’s potent rush and Heisman Trophy running back Jonathan Taylor, it wasn’t enough. The Badgers spread their 173 rushing yards between players, and Taylor still scored twice. Quarterback Jack Coan also exceeded expectations, completing 15 of 22 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns while producing several explosive plays, including his longest 70-yard pass.
The Gophers, meanwhile, couldn’t find their balance. They allowed a big kickoff return to the 39-yard line that set up a score that put the Badgers up two touchdowns in the third quarter. The Gophers then trekked through an arduous drive, only to turn the ball over on downs just outside the end zone. Wisconsin turned that into a touchdown, too.
Morgan endured five sacks, one where he coughed up the ball at the 18, gifting the Badgers another fourth-quarter score. A third-quarter field goal and consolation 12-yard touchdown catch late in the game were the only other Gophers points.
Morgan finished 20-for-37 for 296 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He set the record for single-season passing yards at 2,975, Bateman took the single-season receiving yards record at 1,170, and Tyler Johnson tied the Gophers’ record with 31 receiving touchdowns.
But those records didn’t make Wisconsin chopping down the goalposts any easier to witness. Nor did it soothe the ache of disappointment at not playing in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title next weekend.
That was the game story. The dump-on-them-while-you’re-down comes from sports columnists — for instance, the Strib’s Chip Scoggins:
They were two steps behind in the biggest game of their lives. In physical talent and in coaching decisions. That’s how it felt watching the Gophers slosh through a moment rich in hope.
They looked skittish on the big stage. Overmatched. Every move and matchup countered by a checkmate.
This was a loud thud, considering the stakes. A chance to win the Big Ten West and turn remaining skeptics into believers. A sure ticket to the Rose Bowl, at a minimum. Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Poof. Gone. In the worst possible way.
The Wisconsin Badgers left no doubt which side boasts the superior team in the 129th meeting of border rivals, putting a 38-17 thrashing on the Gophers in a snow globe at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We did not play well enough to win the Big Ten West today,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not a good enough team to win the Big Ten West this year. We weren’t good enough to win the Big Ten West today.”
Problem is, football isn’t a best-of-five series. There aren’t do-overs in a one-game judgment. The team that plays the best gets the trophy and reward.
The Badgers claimed the West title and will play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis next Saturday. The Gophers must wait to learn their bowl destination, knowing they had history at their fingertips and failed to grab it.
It’s wrong to call any 10-2 season a failure, especially at Minnesota, which is new to this neighborhood of relevance. The Gophers will still play in a desirable bowl game in a warm-weather locale. In time, people will reflect on this season with positive memories and potentially as a turning point for the program.
But this is about today, the present. Their season had a chance to be special, which is why this clunker should bring supreme disappointment.
The Gophers held a two-game lead in the division with three games remaining and failed to close the deal. They were sloppy in a loss at Iowa. And they were smashed by the Badgers. Two quality opponents, two poor performances.
One win would have guaranteed their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1962. The buzz locally reflected that hope. More people invested emotionally in the program. This is a kick to their shins, though Fleck tried hard to soften the blow.
“Let’s not start thinking, ‘Well, that’s typical [Gophers],’” he said. “That has to be out of our system. There are going to cynics, there’s going to be doubters and critics. But the true fans, what we want them to do is get that completely out of their mind because we are not going back to that.”
Big picture, sure, the program is on the right path. The season established different historical achievements. But that doesn’t mean people can’t or shouldn’t feel frustrated, or question why they performed so poorly with everything at stake, or fume over coaching decisions.
Leading 7-0 in the first quarter, the Gophers had a chance to make a statement, but Fleck went ultra-conservative. On third-and-2 from the Badgers’ 35, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca called a Wildcat run for Seth Green, who was stuffed for no gain.
On fourth down, Fleck opted to punt. From the 35. With two of the best receivers in college football and an accurate quarterback on his side.
Fleck defended his decision, saying he wanted to manage field position and believed two yards was too risky. His lack of aggressiveness felt deflating.
The Badgers, meanwhile, went for it. They played with their foot on the gas the entire game. They exploited matchups and mistakes and dominated both lines of scrimmage.
The Badgers dug into their bag of tricks and repeatedly pulled out gold. Trickery on a kickoff return netted 56 yards. They scored a touchdown on an end-around. A screen pass on third-and-long went for 70 yards.
The Gophers mismanaged their chances. They came away with zero points after being first-and-goal from the 6. Another time, they called a running play on third-and-10 from the Wisconsin 22 – after a timeout, no less — and settled for a field goal.
It was a baffling performance in many regards, but the overarching difference was unmistakable: The Badgers were physically better, and they were ready for the moment. They deserved the mad dash to reclaim the Axe.
The Gophers left the field quietly, the scene and mood in stark contrast to the raucous celebration after their upset of Penn State three weeks ago. Anything felt possible that day. A division title. A trip to Pasadena. Heck, maybe even a spot in the College Football Playoff.
What a buzzkill.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press’ Bob Sansevere adds to the buzzkill:
The Gophers finished the regular season with a 10-2 record. It’s not as impressive as it looks.
Just one of their 10 wins had you go, “Wow!” The victory over Penn State, and that’s it.
The Gophers lost to Iowa a couple of weeks back and were routed 38-17 Saturday by Wisconsin, crushing dreams, hopes, aspirations, etc., of this being a spectacular season.
“It comes down to making plays, and we just didn’t make them,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
On a day when there was sleet and snow and a flurry of big plays by Wisconsin, the Gophers lost because the Badgers were better and because they still haven’t figured out how to handle success.
Handling success is a huge step in the maturation of a team. The Gophers experienced success in beating then-No. 4 Penn State on Nov. 9. That win wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t program-altering, either. After a 9-0 start — where they stood after Penn State — the Gophers lost two of their last three games.
Over their dozen games, the Gophers roused a fan base and injected excitement into a program that has been mostly average for the past half-century. Fleck and his players deserve a hearty clap on the back for that, but, really, what did they do on the field that was extraordinary?
There were fun wins and memorable performances from the likes of Tanner Morgan, Rodney Smith, Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, Antoine Winfield Jr. and others. There were some stirring moments Saturday, too — such as a 51-yard touchdown pass from Morgan to Bateman on the U’s second play from scrimmage.
After that, they were outscored 38-10. Even as the score became more lopsided, they didn’t fold like a cheap bingo chair. They kept trying, kept battling. What they didn’t do was rally.
The Gophers were good this season, just not good enough. They offered snapshots of what could be throughout the season, lifting their profile by spending the past several weeks nationally ranked.
It’s nice, being ranked among the best teams in the country, but if the Gophers are measured the way established, successful programs are measured, they fall short.
There will be no trip to Indianapolis to play Ohio State for the Big Ten Conference championship, no Rose Bowl as a consolation, no more talk of possible greatness.
The Gophers beat nine of the teams they should have beaten and added a signature win against Penn State. Then lost to their two biggest rivals.
You can bet many Gopher fans will applaud the season, but that’s more because of how rare such seasons have been. If you’re under the age of 60, the Gophers have reeked for most of your lifetime. They haven’t played in the Rose Bowl since 1962.
This was the year to do it, to accomplish more than a 10-win season. There was no Ohio State, no Michigan on the schedule. Next season, Michigan and Michigan State will be there, along with Iowa and Wisconsin.
“We have the capability to be whatever we want to be,” Fleck said. “We just accomplished nevers, firsts, restorations. We have older (fans) thinking we can go back to the Rose Bowl. We’ve restored belief in what we can be and what we will be.”
He mentioned several times the Gophers were co-champions with Wisconsin in the Big Ten’s West Division because they have the same record, but that’s not quite the case. He also talked up the 10-win season and every other positive he could muster. It was Fleck being Fleck.
“This is not just the end-all, be-all (game),” he said.
Fleck is a good coach, there’s no denying that. While he and his staff failed to make the right decisions and adjustments in the losses to Iowa and Wisconsin, he will recruit better players than the Gophers have had in years, continue to spout his “row the boat” mantra and likely keep the Gophers above .500 throughout his tenure.
He might even get them to a Big Ten championship game someday. It’s just too bad it wasn’t this year — The Year That Could Have Been.
The Associated Press looks at the revenge theme:
When Minnesota beat Wisconsin last year to stop a 14-game losing streak in the series, the Gophers had much to celebrate.
The Badgers, as it turned out, didn’t appreciate the lengths of the revelry that took place across the border over the past year.
After Wisconsin took back Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday with a victory as decisive as Minnesota’s was last season, the Badgers didn’t hold back in expressing their disdain for the way the 71-year-old traveling trophy was handled by their oldest rival.
”We just felt like they disrespected the axe by renting it out to people,” linebacker Chris Orr said, lamenting the ”everybody can touch it” opportunities that Minnesota staged over the last year at various venues, from the stadium to the state fair. ”It means more than that. People played this game for a very long time. It means more than that. It’s not a commodity or something that you can just rent out for money or whatever the case is, trying to make profit off it. I feel like that was disrespectful. They didn’t honor the players that came before.”
The Badgers avenged their 37-15 loss at home in 2018 with a 38-17 victory, overwhelming the Gophers in the second half with a fierce pass rush and strong pass coverage on defense and sharp play-calling and back-breaking long gains on offense.
When the game went final, a swarm of white-uniformed Badgers converged on the west goal post to perform the ceremonial chopping. With 22 wins in the last 25 years of the most-played series in major college football history, the Badgers have a 61-60-8 edge on the Gophers. Paul Bunyan’s Axe didn’t enter the picture until 1948.
”The worst feeling in the world was losing on our own field and having them take it,” Orr said. ”The best feeling in the world is beating them on their home field on senior day and taking it from them.”
The Gophers not only ended the long losing streak last year, but they became bowl eligible on the final try to end coach P.J. Fleck’s second season with a flourish, beating the Badgers at their own game with a powerful performance on both sides of the ball at the line of scrimmage. With a team that hasn’t finished in first place in the Big Ten since 1967, in front of lagging attendance, the university naturally seized the opportunity to renew some statewide pride in the program.
Fleck was asked earlier this week about complaints by the Badgers about the offseason Axe tour.
”That wasn’t a rub in anybody’s face,” Fleck said. ”There’s people who are very emotional when they had it. We had people rent it out all over. It was at weddings, anniversaries, parties. This year it’s Minnesota’s. That’s what rivalry trophies are. That’s why they’re so passionate. If Wisconsin wins it, they get to share it with whoever they want to share it with. It’s Wisconsin’s. When Minnesota wins it, they get to share it with whoever they want to share it with. It’s Minnesota’s that year. It wasn’t mine. It wasn’t just our players’. It was the state of Minnesota’s. For me, I wanted people to be a part of our football program, to invest more in our football program, see we can do things. It wasn’t like we were holding it out the window driving through the entire state of Wisconsin. That would be showing up. But sharing with our in-state alums, donors, boosters, supporters, I think that’s culture, tradition. I think that’s what the point was.”
Either way, the Badgers have it now.
”It’s going to sting for a little while,” Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan said. ”That’s football. You’ve got your highs and you’ve got your lows. This is obviously a low for us, but our team will respond. I can guarantee you that.”