It was early in the second quarter at a chilly TCF Bank Stadium when Ra’Shede Hageman thought maybe things were about to warm up.
Wisconsin, up three, had the ball third-and-6, when Badgers quarterback Joel Stave dropped back to pass. There was pressure. With Stave looking, Gophers defensive end Michael Amaefula was closing. As Stave went to throw, Amaefula hit him, sending the pass off-target and into linebacker Aaron Hill’s hands.
A few seconds and 39 yards later, the Gophers led 7-3.
“When he made that play, in my opinion, I felt like it was time to change the course of Wisconsin-Minnesota, of us always losing,” Hageman said.
The problem, of course, was that the Badgers’ defense had something to say about that, too. Led by linebacker Chris Borland, the Badgers shut down the Gophers offense, sacked Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson three times, forced and recovered three fumbles.
And so, in the end, Wisconsin won for the 10th consecutive time in this ancient rivalry. There was no course change.
But the improvement of this Gophers team, which had its four-game conference winning streak snapped, is unmistakable. And much of that can be traced to the Gophers defense.
Remember a year ago? In a one-sided victory in Madison, the Badgers ran wild, rushing 54 times for 337 yards.
This year? Wisconsin — called the most underrated team in the country by Gophers coach Jerry Kill — came into the game averaging 505 yards of offense per game, 307.9 on the ground, and 38.5 points.
Saturday the Gophers became the second Badgers opponent this season (Ohio State was the other one) to hold the Badgers under 200 rushing yards.
The Badgers totaled only 324 yards of offense, nearly 200 under their average. Wisconsin was just 4-for-16 on third downs.
In the first quarter, after a big play gave the Badgers a first down at the Minnesota 12, Wisconsin was forced to settle for a field goal. At the end of the first half, the game still within reach, the Gophers had another goal-line stand.
With a first-and-goal from the 3, Stave threw incomplete, running back James White gained a yard and Stave threw incomplete again, forcing a field goal that gave Wisconsin a 13-7 halftime lead.
“The big thing is, our kids played hard,” Kill said. “Very hard. And I thought, defensively, we did a great job.”
The Badgers scored a season-low 20 points. But, still, it was a loss.
So not much was going to console Hageman, but even he can see the progress.
“Obviously Wisconsin has a good running system, a great offensive line, two great running backs,” he said. “And the fact that we bowed our necks and stopped the running game is a definitely an improvement.”