MINNEAPOLIS — This game still meant an awful lot.
With bigger aspirations still at play in the next couple of weeks, that might have been lost on some entering this weekend. Not the Badgers, though.
The defense turned in arguably its best performance of the season. The offense was lethally proficient. And for the 14th straight year, Wisconsin walked off the field with Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
If you were born in the mid 1990s like me, it’s hard to even remember the last time the Gophers had a hand on the Axe. You’ll have to wait at least another year for a chance to see that, as Wisconsin beat Minnesota 31-0 on Saturday evening to close out the regular season with a 12-0 record.
“I thought our seniors, upperclassmen did a great job of leading the way during the week of preparation and making sure everyone understood the importance of this game,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “I thought it was a really good team effort. A lot of guys made plays and enabled us to win.”
This year’s rivalry game had all the makings of a trap game for Wisconsin. With a potential College Football Playoff berth on the line in next week’s Big Ten title game, it would have been easy to look past the five-win Gophers. And with eccentric head coach P.J. Fleck at the helm to galvanize his Minnesota squad, who knew how they’d come out of the gates?
As it turned out, the Badgers defense built a brick wall right in front of those gates, and the Gophers smashed into it headfirst.
Wisconsin held its rival to just 46 yards of offense in the first half, and just 133 yards all day in a dominant shutout. The defense might have been able to win the game on its own, which is no surprise given how much of a factor it’s been in Wisconsin’s success over the last few years.
Generous as the offense is though, it gave the defense a huge cushion to work with. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook alleviated some of the concern around his play this season with a 15 of 19 day passing with 151 yards and three touchdowns—while avoiding the interceptions that have been his Achilles heel this year.
“I thought Alex was really good. I thought he was seeing the field well and gave guys chances to make plays,” Chryst said of Hornibrook.
Hornibrook helped give Wisconsin a 17-0 lead in the first half with touchdown passes to Troy Fumagalli and Kyle Penniston late in the first and second quarters, respectively, and the team was bolstered by a 32-yard field goal by Rafael Gaglianone.
Freshman Jonathan Taylor, a budding star on the national scene, ran for a 53-yard score in the second half to continue his phenomenal play this year. Hornibrook hit emerging freshman Danny Davis with a 5-yard touchdown too.
All eyes will now turn to Indianapolis, where Wisconsin has a date with Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. Win, and the Badgers will likely be in the College Football Playoff for the first time since its inception. That’s hard to fathom even for me, let alone anyone who sat through the underwhelming seasons of the 1980s.
“Well certainly each week’s got a challenge, and Ohio State’s a really good football team,” Chryst said. “But our guys will take advantage of each day and they’ll be ready.”
Like so many Wisconsin football teams in the last decade, this Badgers squad is on the cusp of history. The Badgers came up short in three straight Rose Bowls from 2011 to 2013. They lost by 59 in the 2014 Big Ten Title Game. They blew a 14-point halftime lead in last year’s conference title game against Penn State with a potential Playoff spot on the line.
Will this year be the year when they finally come out on top and punch their way into the history books? Only time will tell, but based off the show they put on in Minneapolis on Saturday, it’s starting to feel like it.
Regardless of what happens next Saturday, the Badgers should earn a New Year’s Six berth at the very least. All Wisconsin fans can do is enjoy the ride. Because no matter what, the Badgers have shown they can hang around on a national level. This just might be the year the rest of the country realizes that.