With feistiness rarely seen this season, the Gophers fought hard for their first Big Ten victory but fell short.
The Gophers football team made dubious history Saturday, but the players went down swinging.
Minnesota gave border rival Wisconsin a good fight, but it wasn't enough to avoid setting a school record for losses in a wildly entertaining 41-34 defeat before an announced crowd of 59,116 at the Metrodome.
The Gophers didn't look, act or play like a team with only one victory and nine-game losing streak on its side.
They matched Wisconsin blow for blow in a game of crazy plays, weird bounces and huge momentum swings.
"Our kids fought their guts out, played extremely well and did a lot of things well," Gophers coach Tim Brewster said. "But we didn't win the football game, and that's what we're here to do."
The Gophers finished the season with a 1-11 record, including 0-8 in the Big Ten. They lost their final 10 games and finished without a victory or tie in the Big Ten for the first time since 1983.
"This year taught me a lot about life and about adversity," senior linebacker Mike Sherels said.
The game served as a microcosm of the entire season. The Gophers showed flashes of their potential, but they didn't have enough when it mattered most.
"We had nothing to lose," senior linebacker John Shevlin said.
The Badgers had to sweat out some anxious moments before taking Paul Bunyan's Axe on a celebratory trip around the field. Clinging to a seven-point lead, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema gambled by going for it on fourth-and-inches with 3 minutes, 1 second left at his own 42. Quarterback Tyler Donovan sprinted right and picked up 2 yards.
The Gophers got a stop and had one final chance with the ball at their own 8-yard line with 1:25 remaining. But Ben Strickland, who blocked a punt for the game-winning touchdown here two years ago, intercepted Adam Weber's deflected pass to seal the victory for Wisconsin (9-3, 5-3).
The Badgers extended their winning streak in the rivalry to four games and reached nine victories for the fourth consecutive season, a school record.
Weber played admirably in defeat, completing 21 of 37 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions. He also led the Gophers with 87 rushing yards on 15 carries.
Eric Decker and Ernie Wheelwright combined for 13 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns.
Wisconsin freshmen Zach Brown had a career day in place of an injured P.J. Hill. Brown rushed for 250 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
Just like in 2005, the game turned on special teams. The Gophers had both a failed fake punt attempt and a fumbled punt in the fourth quarter, which led to two Badgers touchdowns.
The Gophers tried a fake punt early in the quarter on fourth-and-10, but punter Justin Kucek was tackled after an 8-yard run, giving Wisconsin the ball at the Gophers 49. That led to Travis Beckum's 16-yard touchdown catch for a 34-20 lead.
The Gophers answered with a scoring drive and a 4-yard touchdown catch by Decker with 7:50 remaining.
The Gophers got a defensive stop, but freshman returner Harold Howell fumbled a booming punt and Wisconsin recovered at it the Minnesota 15. The Badgers scored two plays later on Brown's 4-yard run.
Two years ago Wisconsin completed a remarkable comeback on a special teams mistake by Kucek, who dropped a clean snap in the final minute. The Badgers blocked the punt and recovered it in the end zone for the victory.
The Gophers looked like they might engineer their own miracle comeback Saturday when Ralph Spry caught a tipped pass intended for Marcus Sherels and sprinted for a 71-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 41-34 with 4:37 remaining.
But that's as close as they would get as the Badgers made enough plays on both sides of the ball to finish the job.
"We gave ourselves a chance," Sherels said. "That's all we asked of ourselves. That showed how far we came this year."
The loss left players searching for positives and a silver lining in the immediate aftermath of a 1-11 season.
"This wasn't the way we planned it," Wheelwright said. "We wanted to go to the Rose Bowl. That's our goal every time we step out on the field. But I think the sky is the limit for the Gophers in the future."
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org
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