Madison, Wis. – Wisconsin’s comeback victory over the Gophers on Saturday retained Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 13th consecutive season.
But more important for the Badgers, it also kept alive their hopes of a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Trailing by 10 points at halftime and seven after three quarters, the Badgers turned two interceptions into touchdowns in a 21-point final period to salvage a 31-17 victory and win the Big Ten West Division title outright at Camp Randall Stadium.
Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten), ranked sixth in the College Football Playoff rankings and fifth by the Associated Press, will face Penn State (10-2, 7-2) in the Big Ten championship game Saturday in Indianapolis, the Badgers’ fourth appearance in the game in its six years of existence.
Wisconsin still likely needs help to get in the four-team playoff field — possibly a Washington loss to Colorado in the Pac-12, or a Clemson loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC — as well as a victory over the Nittany Lions.
Playoff possibilites weren’t on the mind of Badgers coach Paul Chryst on Saturday, though. “Today was about playing Minnesota and trying to keep the axe at home,” he said. “They did that, and to enjoy that and to appreciate it. It doesn’t just happen.
“Tomorrow, we’ll push the reset button and we’ll get ready to play Penn State.”
The Badgers had clinched a spot in Indy by virtue of Nebraska’s 40-10 loss to Iowa on Friday. But Wisconsin refused to settle for a four-way tie atop the division with the Cornhuskers, Hawkeyes and Gophers.
Still, it didn’t come easy for Wisconsin on Saturday. When the Gophers took a 17-7 lead in the final minute of the first half, it marked the first time the Badgers had trailed by 10 or more points in 23 games, dating to their loss to Alabama to open the 2015 season.
“I felt like we were playing two teams,” Chryst said. “We were trying to beat Minnesota, and we also had to stop beating ourselves. We just had to lock in [on] one play at a time.”
The team that beat itself in the end was the Gophers, with Mitch Leidner throwing four second-half interceptions. Meanwhile, the Badgers run game finally got going, with Jazz Peavy’s 71-yard sweep setting up Corey Clement’s go-ahead touchdown run.
“In the fourth quarter we just kind of just locked in,” said Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who made two interceptions.
One concern for Wisconsin going forward is the health of quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who left the game after a second-quarter hit along the sideline by Gophers linebacker Jack Lynn. The play was reviewed for targeting, but Lynn clearly lowered his head and led with his shoulder.
The Badgers are 6-2 with Hornibrook starting, but in recent weeks he had been splitting snaps more with senior Bart Houston, who began the season as the starter. Houston led Wisconsin to its first touchdown and finished 9-for-14 for 123 yards. Hornibrook was 4-for-8 for 29 yards.
“[Hornibrook] said he feels all right now,” Chryst said. “But nothing really medically to give you.”
Wisconsin might have lost its starting QB, but it retained the axe, a trophy that has gone to the Gophers only twice in the past 22 meetings. With their current winning streak, the Badgers have evened the all-time series at 59-59-8, the first time they have been even since 6-6 in 1901.
Star Tribune staff writer Joe Christensen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.