At no time did the decibels climb higher Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium than after Rashod Bateman’s 51-yard touchdown catch early in the first quarter gave the Gophers the first big play and lead of the game against Wisconsin.
Just like that the college football viewers around the country watching the Big Ten West Division title showdown were reminded of P.J. Fleck’s talented wide receiving corps.
That talented group gave the Gophers the early edge, but the explosive plays through the air were hard to come by when it mattered most moving forward in a 38-17 loss to the Badgers.
“I just felt like we weren’t attacking the football like we normally do,” Fleck said. “We really are very aggressive at the wide receiver position.”
Bateman, a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s top receiver, had 147 yards receiving, but 78 yards came on two catches in the first half. Tyler Johnson, who gave the U a pair of 1,000-yard receivers for the first time in a season, tied Ron Johnson’s school record with his 31st career touchdown catch, but the ball just fell off his fingertips when the Gophers desperately needed to score on a critical drive in the fourth quarter.
“We were having fun out there,” Bateman said of the drive that culminated with his 51-yard touchdown catch. “After that we just I felt like as an offense just lost control of our details. We just didn’t execute well.”
With the snow falling heavier in the second half, the Gophers trailed 24-10 when Tanner Morgan picked up three first downs on throws to Johnson for a combined 30 yards and Bateman for 16. Those eventually got the Gophers within striking distance inside Wisconsin’s 10-yard-line to end the third quarter.
With a third-and-goal on the 4-yard-line, Johnson went airborne on a fade in the back of the end zone, but Badgers defensive back Caesar Williams timed his jump just right for the pass breakup.
On the ensuing play, Morgan’s pass to Johnson again went incomplete. This time it was in front of the goal line with Williams knocking the ball out of Johnson’s grasp.
Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell also had their chances, but the trio couldn’t come up with the game-changing plays they made look routine this year.
Johnson’s 12-yard TD catch with 5:51 left in the fourth quarter tied the U’s career mark, but it was bittersweet, coming too late to matter. The same went for Bateman’s grab on Minnesota’s last possession that helped him surpass his teammate’s school record for receiving yards in a season with 1,170.
“They played us tight and played us really well,” Fleck said. “We still had plenty of opportunities to make those plays.”