MADISON, Wis. – Someday this agony will end, and the Gophers will finally reclaim Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Maybe then, the current Gophers will be able to look back at Saturday’s game at Camp Randall Stadium with something beyond bitter disappointment.
Mitch Leidner threw not one, not two, not three but four second-half interceptions, as the Gophers blew a 10-point lead in a 31-17 loss to No. 5 Wisconsin.
Afterward, a despondent Leidner came to the interview room, with his stocking hat pulled low, the picture of frustration.
“Pretty ticked off,” Leidner said. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Minnesota has now lost 13 consecutive games to the Badgers, with the Gophers’ last win in Madison coming in 1994.
“This one hurts,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “The trophy games are important to us and the state of Minnesota, and so not to be able to get one of them this year is disappointing to us.”
The Gophers (8-4, 5-4) missed a chance to finish in a four-way tie for the Big Ten West title, though Wisconsin knew entering the game that it held the tiebreaker and was heading to the conference championship game.
The Badgers (10-2, 7-2), who sit sixth in the College Football Playoff rankings, will play Big Ten East champion Penn State next Saturday in Indianapolis.
“I’m really proud of this team and thought it took some grit and some perseverance to be able to keep the Axe,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said.
The Gophers led 17-7 at halftime, but history showed that wasn’t safe. Consider:
• Minnesota led 13-3 after one half at Penn State this year in an eventual overtime loss.
• The Gophers led 17-10 after one half at Nebraska two weeks ago and lost that one 24-17.
• Minnesota also led by four points at Wisconsin after one half in 2014, and the Badgers also dominated the second half in that game for a 34-24 win.
After this one, Claeys said he told his players he was “disappointed in the game, but not disappointed in them. They’ve given us a hell of an effort all year long. This is the first game that’s been more than one possession at the end, and we’ve had our chances in all of them.”
Wisconsin opened the second half with a field goal before Leidner made his first critical mistake. On third-and-9 from the Wisconsin 14, he tried to hit Rashad Still along the sideline in the end zone, but safety Leo Musso was there for the interception.
“They disguised their coverage there,” Leidner said. “I felt like I knew what they were doing every single play the entire game, and then they disguise one coverage and I slip and mess up and they get a lot of momentum from there.”
The Gophers were well within Emmit Carpenter’s field goal range. It was Leidner’s third red-zone interception of the season. The first two — in the fourth quarter at Penn State and Nebraska — were also game-changers.
On Leidner’s second interception Saturday, Eric Carter ran a go route up the right sideline, and Leidner expected him to come back to a spot. Leidner threw to that spot, but Carter kept going, making an easy interception for Sojourn Shelton, who returned it 40 yards to the Minnesota 19.
“A little route miscommunication, but I don’t know,” Leidner said, with his voice trailing off.
The Badgers have 11 interceptions over the past three games and 21 for the season, their most since 2002. Shelton, who finished with two picks, said he saw the first one coming based on Minnesota’s film.
“All week, one of their go-to routes was a comeback,” Shelton said. “I saw the quarterback. He dropped back, and on that third step, he was ready to fire it, and the receiver wasn’t ready. I saw his hand coming off the ball, so I just took a risk.”
The Badgers quickly took advantage of the gift, with Corey Clement scoring the tying touchdown on a 2-yard run.
Minnesota punted on its next drive, and Badgers receiver Jazz Peavy took a jet sweep 71 yards. Clement followed with the go-ahead 2-yard touchdown run.
On the next drive, Leidner threw an interception off his back foot, and Dare Ogunbowale quickly turned that into points with an 8-yard touchdown run.
“Most of the time it’s trying to do too much,” Claeys said. “When you are in a one-score game, you don’t really need to force those balls in there and do that type of stuff.”