MADISON, WIS. - The 2012 Badgers sure look a lot like the 2011 edition to the Gophers. And the 2010 and the 2009 and the 2008 bunch, too.
The 2012 Gophers, on the other hand, suddenly bear a striking resemblance to their 2014 version with their recent reliance on true freshmen.
That will be great in two years -- especially if they use that time to plug the gaping hole in the middle of their defense -- but it didn't provide much more than hope Saturday.
Wisconsin used its time-tested formula of a battering-ram running game and a mistake-averse defense to claim Paul Bunyan's Axe for the ninth season in a row, whipping the Gophers 38-13 in Camp Randall Stadium.
But while the Gophers trudged off the field wondering what it feels like to hoist the Axe, they also took with them a feeling of real optimism about the future. Quarterback Philip Nelson made his collegiate debut in the city where he lived for the first dozen years of his life, and while the freshman didn't immediately step into school legend by capturing the Axe, he at least lived up to the quarterback-of-the-future hype that has surrounded him since he chose Minnesota.
"He did some good things, he really did," said coach Jerry Kill, who decided this week that his team couldn't hobble along for the rest of the season wondering what quarterback would be healthy enough to play, especially once MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell were both too battered to practice early in the week.
"I thought his play was encouraging."
So was the identity of his teammates: Andre McDonald made a difficult catch, Lincoln Plsek had a reception and a handful of blocks and Rodrick Williams picked up 20 rushing yards and, Kill said, a couple of blitzes. Considering all are teenage freshmen who have gotten their first substantial playing time in the past eight days, it's a refreshing and sudden infusion of talent, and perhaps the foundation for a dangerous offense.
In a year or two.
In the here and now, however, Nelson -- sticking almost entirely with short and midrange throws -- completed 13 of 24 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns. His confidence grew visibly as the first half wore on, he eluded several tacklers as he rushed for 67 yards and he made the scoring plays look easy. One was a 16-yard slant pass to Brandon Green, the senior's first catch of the season, the other a 12-yard bullet to A.J. Barker at the goal line.
"To get thrown in there like that, in a situation like this, [Nelson] did pretty good," said Green, who has battled swelling in his surgically repaired knees all season. "He found the open people, delivered the ball, moved the offense along in the second half and the end of the first. He just did great."
Nelson threw a pair of interceptions, too, one of them clearly a rookie mistake, and the third-quarter touchdown pass to Barker was the only time in 10 tries that Nelson was able to convert a third down into the necessary yardage. But after the first couple of series, Nelson -- who was informed Friday night that he would be starting -- also rarely looked like the just-barely 19-year-old newbie that he is.
"After the first two drives, I started to realize, you know, this ain't too much different from practice," said Nelson, Minnesota's Mr. Football last year at Mankato West. "It's just like any other game."
It certainly was to the Badgers.
Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) tied the Gophers' record for most consecutive victories in the 122-game series, set from 1933 to '41, mostly because in every meeting between the schools since 2004, some Wisconsin running back follows the usual enormous Wisconsin offensive line down the field for more than 100 rushing yards and at least two touchdowns.
This time, there were two such creatures of habit: James White had 175 yards and three touchdowns and Montee Ball had 166 and two, his exact numbers from a year ago against the Gophers (4-3, 0-3). Wisconsin ran for 337 yards as a team, more than triple the Gophers' paltry 96.
"They've got the same type of football team they've had here for a long time," Kill said. "They're a very physical group, very well-coached. Got some kids that can make some plays."
Most discouraging, though, was the continuation of the Gophers' worst habit: The empty secondary. For the third consecutive game, a Big Ten running back burst across the middle of the line of scrimmage and found himself all alone. At Iowa, the result was runs of 27, 44 and 32 yards by Mark Weisman. Against Northwestern, Venric Mark scored touchdowns from 26 and 48 yards out.
And in front of a packed house of 80,587 mostly red-clad Badgers fans, White had scores of 14, 34 and 48 yards, all of them basically untouched. Ball added 14- and 44-yard scores in the fourth quarter, the 73rd and 74th touchdowns of his career.
"We have some disappointed players and coaches [who wonder], 'Hey, why aren't we getting this shut off?' " Kill said. "They physically keep coming at you. ... I think they just wore us down."