One win away from clinching the Big Ten West Division title, Wisconsin saw a combination of mistakes and a poor rushing attack keep it from a championship berth in a 23-13 loss Saturday night in the regular-season finale against the Gophers.
"Obviously, offensively we didn't score enough points," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said after the program's first loss at Minnesota since 2003.
Freshman running back Braelon Allen's star entered the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe shining bright with seven straight 100-yard rushing performances during Wisconsin's seven-game win streak, but Minnesota's stifling defense held him to 47 yards on 17 carries.
"He was coming in on a crazy run," Gophers linebacker Jack Gibbens said. "We definitely had a ton of respect for what they wanted to do. But definitely something that you got to let your pride kick in when a team is going to come in and you know they want to establish the run."
Entering the fourth quarter trailing 20-13, the Badgers were held to just 53 yards rushing, which included Allen averaging 2.8 yards per carry. Minnesota's defense keyed in on the 17-year-old Wisconsin native, and Allen was hampered by a lower leg injury.
Allen told reporters after the game that he had been dealing with issues with both of his legs all season, so he needed to "rest up, recover and get back to 100 percent."
Even with their most explosive offensive option slowed down, the Badgers led 10-6 at halftime after Noah Burks tipped a pass that was intercepted by Scott Nelson and returned for a 25-yard touchdown, but it wasn't enough to help secure the division crown.
"Just disappointing all around," Burks said afterward. "We've been so dominant in this game for so long. Nobody wants to be on the team that loses the Axe."
Five of the team's eight penalties came in the first half, including opening the game with a targeting call that got senior safety Collin Wilder ejected.
Minnesota was kept out of the end zone in the first half, but the Badgers gave up their first two touchdowns of the game following two mistakes in the second half.
Graham Mertz's first interception in two games came after Justin Walley wrestled the ball away from Kendric Pryor after his catch on the sidelines to open the third quarter. Two plays later, Wisconsin trailed 13-10 after a Gophers TD run.
The Badgers ranked eighth in the Big Ten with 44 yards on penalties per game, but they got called for their sixth penalty of the game when Caesar Williams was called for pass interference on Dylan Wright late in the third quarter.
The Huntington Bank Stadium crowd roared soon after the Gophers scored on a 27-yard pass from Tanner Morgan to Autman-Bell for a 20-13 lead.
Lacking an adequate ground game, Mertz attempted the most passes (21-for-38 for 171 yards) since the third game of the season, when he went 18 of 41 for 240 yards and four interceptions in a 41-13 loss against Notre Dame.
The Wisconsin signal caller had no pick six Saturday night, but he struggled finding enough rhythm with his receivers to answer the Gophers.
On third-and-10 on Minnesota's 30-yard line, Mertz and Chimere Dike had a miscommunication when the ball was thrown inside incomplete on his pattern toward the sideline. Making matters worse, the Badgers failed to score on the drive after a 48-yard field goal hit the cross bar.
Wisconsin's comeback hopes evaporated on another miscue when Mertz's errant pass to Danny Davis III on fourth-and-4 went in the opposite direction with 3:21 to play.
Before that sequence, it was fitting that the Badgers were called for a false start penalty after erroneously sending their punt unit onto the field on a fourth-and-short.
"Never should've even been thinking punt," Chryst said. "I didn't handle it well, flat out."