When the nation’s second-ranked defense meets the country’s 119th-ranked offense, there’s a good chance you’ll get what transpired Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium.
A motivated Wisconsin team used that stout defense to manhandle the Gophers’ overmatched offense, holding Minnesota to no first downs until late into the second quarter, and emerged with an easy 31-0 victory.
By losing its second consecutive game and seventh in nine Big Ten contests, the Gophers finished 5-7 and lost Paul Bunyan’s Axe to the fifth-ranked Badgers (12-0, 9-0) for the 14th consecutive year.
The loss also ended P.J. Fleck’s first year as Gophers coach with a thud, with his team losing its last two games by a combined 70-0 to Wisconsin and Northwestern. The last time the Gophers were shut out in consecutive games in a single season was 1950.
The Badgers outgained the Gophers 456-133, including 359-80 through three quarters.
“This was unacceptable tonight. Period,’’ Fleck said. “There’s no way we’re going to look like that next year.’’
Minnesota also saw the end of its five-year streak of making a bowl game. They needed six wins to gain bowl eligibility the traditional way, and their chance to make it at 5-7 via a high Academic Progress Rate closed Saturday when enough teams reached six wins to fill all 78 bowl spots.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, goes into next week’s Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State on a roll and in line for a spot in the College Football Playoff if it wins. Alex Hornibrook passed for three touchdowns, and freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor rushed 20 times for 151 yards, including a 53-yard TD run.
“It means a lot to win this game and leave this field with the Axe,’’ Badgers coach Paul Chryst said.
Minnesota mustered little again in the passing game, with Demry Croft going 3-for-9 for 40 yards. Minnesota had zero yards through the air in the first quarter and only 3 by halftime. Only running back Rodney Smith and first-time starter Will Reger caught passes. In three of his five Big Ten starts, Croft passed for 47 yards or fewer, and the absence of go-to receiver Tyler Johnson (broken wrist) was clear again.
“There comes a point where you start running out of people,’’ Fleck said. “You are playing with people with a low amount of experience that might not be able to get the job done.’’
The Gophers defense had its moments, stopping Wisconsin on its first two possession and forcing a fumble later in the first half. But Minnesota’s offense kept going three-and-out – five times in the six first-half possessions – and forcing the defense to quickly return to the field. Eventually, that defense wore down.
“When you don’t execute, that’s what happens,’’ Fleck said. “When you play a team like that, eventually they make you catch up, catch up, catch up, and it’s too far out of reach. … They suffocate you.’’
Wisconsin got its offense going late on the first quarter, with Hornibrook leading a 12-play, 73-yard drive for a 7-0 lead on his 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Troy Fumagalli.
The Gophers appeared to respond with Smith’s kickoff return to the Wisconsin 7, but a holding penalty on Bailey Schoenfelder negated the big play. “It would have flipped the field position,’’ Smith said. “I think we would have got at least three points out of that.’’
Instead, the Gophers went three-and-out, and Wisconsin marched 63 yards for Rafael Gaglionone’s 32-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead. Key was fullback Austin Ramesh 41-yard gain to the Minnesota 5 on an end-around.
The Gophers defense gave the offense a boost when on third down from the Badgers 49, Thomas Barber forced Taylor to fumble and Kamal Martin recovered. However, Minnesota’s offense did nothing with the good field position. Badgers linebacker Ryan Connelly, the former Eden Prairie standout, sacked Croft for a 12-yard loss on first down, and the drive quickly ended.
A seven-play, 79-yard Badgers drive followed, which Hornibrook capped with a 5-yard TD pass to tight end Kyle Pennison for a 17-0 lead with 50 seconds left in the half. At that point, the Badgers had 262 yards to the Gophers’ 13.
Minnesota got its first first down of the game on Smith’s 25-yard run to midfield with 41 seconds left in the half and made it to the Badgers 32. But Emmit Carpenter missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt with three seconds left.
The second half saw Wisconsin extend the lead to 24-0 on Hornibrook’s 5-yard TD pass to Danny Davis and to 31-0 on Taylor’s 53-yard TD run.
Wisconsin’s efficiency was just too much for the Gophers.
“When you have great team, an elite team like that, that’s what it’s all about,’’ Fleck said. “And that’s what we’re working to get to. We gotta get there.’’