Jerry Kill returned to TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. Unfortunately for the Gophers, they couldn’t suit him up to play defensive tackle.
The Gophers were painfully thin at that position, and Wisconsin took advantage. The Badgers looked like their old selves in the first half, even though their running game had struggled all season.
Kill hoped to see the Gophers beat Wisconsin for the first time since 2003. But the Badgers held on for a 31-21 win, and assumed their usual position, hoisting Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Dare Ogunbowale rushed for a career-high 155 yards, and the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense forced five Gophers turnovers, including four by Mitch Leidner, to stretch Wisconsin’s winning streak over the Gophers to 12.
“Everybody is disappointed that you don’t go to a bowl game,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “But I tell you what: Those kids bust their tails, and they are all proud of each other.”
The Gophers (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten) needed one more victory to become bowl eligible, so this loss appeared to end their season.
With 40 bowls, the NCAA must fill 80 bowl spots. So far, 75 have qualified with six victories, and only three more teams have a chance to get their requisite sixth win.
That means at least two 5-7 teams can make a bowl, but Gophers officials aren’t holding their breath. Not with Nebraska also sitting at 5-7 in the same conference with a higher score on the most recent Academic Progress Rate (985) compared with the Gophers (975).
Updated list of teams that have qualified for a bowl game: Click here.
“I don’t know [if there’s still a bowl chance],” Claeys said. “If there is, they can send me a message. Right now, we’ve got a senior banquet [Sunday]. That’s the very next priority for me. Those kids deserve all the credit in the world.”
Saturday was their chance. The Gophers were 2 ½-point underdogs, after being picked to lose by an average of 19.6 points in their previous five games against Wisconsin.
The Badgers (9-3, 6-2) were coming off a 13-7 home loss to Northwestern. They had four redshirt freshmen starting on their injury-depleted offensive line and were without top running back Corey Clement for disciplinary reasons.
Kill helped get an announced sellout crowd of 52,850 going, returning one month to the day after he retired for health reasons. He took part in the Senior Day ceremonies and led the team onto the field.
But the Gophers had their worst performance in five games under Claeys. They had committed only two turnovers in their previous four games combined.
Leidner, under heavy pressure, threw three interceptions and had a fumble. He finished 16-for-37 for 223 yards.
“They were a tough defense, and it was tough at times to get moving the football,” Leidner said. “They definitely capitalized on turnovers.”
Indeed, Wisconsin turned the Gophers’ first three turnovers into 17 points, overcoming the gift Badgers quarterback Joel gave Briean Boddy-Calhoun on their first play from scrimmage — a pick-six.
Wisconsin shook off Stave’s interception by reeling off touchdown drives of 67 and 73 yards, keeping the ball on the ground most of the way. The Gophers came back to tie the score at 14-14 early in the second quarter with a 71-yard drive, capped by Rodney Smith’s 6-yard run.
But the Gophers turned the ball over on their next two drives — fumbles by Leidner and KJ Maye — and the Badgers turned both of those takeaways into touchdowns.
Wisconsin came in averaging 109.6 rushing yards per game, in Big Ten play, fewest in the conference. But the Badgers rushed for 199 yards in the first half, including 132 by Ogunbowale, as they built a 28-14 lead.
The Badgers managed only 58 rushing yards in the second half, scoring three points.
“I told them they’re a heck of a lot better than how they were playing in the first half,” Claeys said of his team’s halftime adjustments.
The Gophers were missing both starting defensive tackles (Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe) and key reserve (Robert Ndondo-Lay) all because of injuries.
“That is out of my control,” Claeys said.
To fill those spots, the Gophers used sophomore Andrew Stelter, who is normally a second-stringer, and third-stringer Yoshoub Timms. They also turned to Justin Carr, a transfer from Rochester Community and Technical College who hadn’t played a meaningful down at defensive tackle all season.
“I don’t care how you recruit,” Claeys said. “Nobody has five, six, seven, eight defensive tackles playing in there, know what I’m saying?”
After a lost season, at least the Gophers have time to get healthy.