Eric Burrell formed his hands around a phantom handle and swung his arms down again and again, aiming where the goalpost sprouted from the Camp Randall Stadium field.
The Wisconsin safety had just intercepted Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan in the end zone, reading the quarterback's mind before the ball ever left his palm in the second quarter. His chopping pantomime as celebration must have sprung from a similar premonition.
Wisconsin toppled the Gophers 20-17 in overtime Saturday in a close game, some semblance of revenge for the 2018 loss on home turf to the bitter border rival. For the Gophers, there was no revenge for last season's defeat at TCF Bank Stadium that took the Gophers out of the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl.
"Being from Minnesota and knowing how much this game means to me and to my teammates I play with, it hurts," defensive end Boye Mafe said. "We are sad. It hurts the team, and it's something that — it hurts, being the situation that it was. There's no easy way around that."
While it's not the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl that were on the line in this meeting last year, the 3-3 Badgers do have a better chance of making a bowl game, potentially the low-tier Guaranteed Rate Bowl. The 3-4 Gophers could still earn an invite, with no eligibility requirements this year during the pandemic, but this was most likely their final game of 2020.
In a year of COVID-19 outbreaks, canceled games and vast uncertainty in general, having the original Nov. 28 rivalry game rescheduled was a bright point for the Gophers, hoping to end the year with a meaningful win.
But they didn't play well enough to feel that high.
Wisconsin's conference-leading defense held the Gophers to 326 offensive yards, most consistently from Big Ten Running Back of the Year Mohamed Ibrahim' 151 yards. Quarterback Tanner Morgan and his receivers still failed to routinely connect, especially once main target Chris Autman-Bell left the game with an injury after the second-half kickoff. Morgan was 13-for-25 for 160 yards, two touchdowns and that Burrell interception.
The Gophers defense was one of the worst in the conference entering the game but held the depleted Badgers to 322 yards. Wisconsin was without its top two receivers, top two running backs and starting left tackle, while also losing quarterback Graham Mertz to injury late in the game. But backup Chase Wolf managed to lead the team to victory, thanks to running back Garrett Groshek's 154 yards.
"We played really well at times, didn't play so well at times, but they just kept fighting," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said of his players. "To have our rivalry game in Madison come down to overtime and have opportunities to win it, couldn't ask for anything more."
The Gophers took the first lead on Morgan's 16-yard pass to running back Cam Wiley late in the first quarter, with Wisconsin answering early in the second on a 39-yard run from Groshek. It remained tied until the Gophers pulled ahead halfway through the third quarter on a 38-yard field goal from Anders Gelecinskyj, the third-string kicker.
Wisconsin took its first lead soon after, when Wolf finished off Mertz's injury drive with a 4-yard pass to Jack Dunn. The Badgers added a Collin Larsh 31-yard field goal, though a 9-yard pass from Morgan to receiver Mike Brown-Stephens tied the score once again with less than five minutes to play.
Gophers cornerback Coney Durr intercepted Wolf to give his team a chance to win with about a minute to play, but that drive ended with Morgan sacked. Gelecinskyj missed a 36-yard field goal to start overtime, and Larsh nailed his 30-yarder.
Morgan said the Gophers were "heartbroken" to not take Paul Bunyan's Axe back to Minnesota. Fleck said the locker room after the game was disappointed but not pouty. The coach reflected on the courage and loyalty his players showed in the past two games, a close rivalry loss and an underdog win with 33 players unavailable.
"The fight they show. There's no moral victories in this," Fleck said. "But … they never quit, never gave up."
As the Gophers trudged back underneath the stands, ambiguity of what next season could hold still lingering, Burrell took the actual Axe in hand and ran across the field, his teammates in tow.
When he reached the opposite goalpost, he swung his arms down. Again. Again. And again.
The Star Tribune reporter did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews after the game.