MADISON, WIS. – Mariano Sori-Marin strode into the interview room like a boss, puffing on a cigar and reveling in what just had transpired at Camp Randall Stadium.
"It's OK 'cause I'm Cuban. It's my culture," the Gophers senior linebacker said, defending his stogie, after Minnesota's 23-16 comeback victory over Wisconsin on Saturday.
The scent of victory cigars was prevalent, and the Gophers had another prize heading back to Minneapolis with them: Paul Bunyan's Axe, which they won for the second consecutive year for the first time since 1993 and '94.
Sori-Marin and his fellow seniors can thank a couple of redshirt freshmen for playing a huge part in the triumph.
Quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis connected with wide receiver Le'Meke Brockington for a 45-yard touchdown pass with 3:40 left in the fourth quarter, providing the decisive points in the Gophers' victory. It came after Minnesota rallied from a 16-13 fourth-quarter deficit, first tying the score on Matthew Trickett's third field goal of the day, a 27-yarder with 7:58 to play.
Justin Walley intercepted a Graham Mertz pass and returned it 28 yards to the Badgers 35 with 2:48 left, but Wisconsin had one more chance.
The Badgers got the ball back with 1:48 left after Trickett's 48-yard field-goal attempt hit an upright. Wisconsin reached the Gophers' 5, but a holding call and three false start penalties moved the Badgers back to the 30 with 16 seconds left. Backup QB Chase Wolf's fourth-down pass from the 25 fell incomplete as time expired, setting off the Gophers' mad dash to get the Axe.
"We were just able to make one more play than they did," said Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, who's won the Axe three times in the past five years. "I couldn't be more proud of our seniors. I couldn't be more proud of our team. I couldn't be more proud of our togetherness."
Kaliakmanis, making his fourth start in place of the injured Tanner Morgan, completed 19 of 29 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns as the Gophers finished the regular season with an 8-4 record and a 5-4 Big Ten mark. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim rushed 27 times for 70 yards, his 19-game streak of 100-yard rushing games ending.
On the winning drive, which started at the Minnesota 29, Kaliakmanis found Daniel Jackson for a 16-yard gain to the Wisconsin 44. Two plays later, Brockington made an inside move, hauled in Kaliakmanis' pass and split the defense for the decisive TD.
"Our quarterback played really special,'' Fleck said. "And he did some things that – wow! That's like 500-level things.''
Mertz went 16-for-27 for 170 yards for Wisconsin (6-6, 4-5), which is 4-3 under interim coach Jim Leonhard.
The game was a back-and-forth battle, with Wisconsin starting with a first-possession field goal, the Gophers responding with Kaliakmanis' 6-yard TD pass to Jackson, the Badgers cutting it to 7-6, then Minnesota taking a 10-7 lead on Trickett's 25-yard field goal on the final play of the first half.
"It wasn't the prettiest game in the world, but man, it was it was a hard-fought game by both teams,'' Sori-Marin said.
The Gophers extended their lead to 13-6 on the first possession the third quarter when Trickett's 50-yard field goal — which came a play after he missed a 45-yarder that was wiped out by a Minnesota false start — hit the crossbar and fell in for the three points.
Wisconsin, though, responded by scoring the next 10 points, getting a 36-yard field goal by Nate Van Zelst, then a 9-yard touchdown run by Chimere Dike with 3:14 left in the third quarter.
As the Badgers took control, then Gophers offense stalled, punting on three consecutive possessions before getting the ball back with 11:01 left in the fourth quarter. Fleck's message to his team?
"Respond," he said. "Respond, respond, respond. That's all."
And the Gophers did, driving 69 yards for Trickett's tying kick. On the march, Kaliakmanis had completions of 14 yards to Dylan Wright, 19 yards to Brevyn Spann-Ford and 34 to Jackson down to the Badgers 12.
When Minnesota's defense forced a three-and-out, the offense got the ball back at the Gophers 29 with 6:01 to play. Kaliakmanis found Jackson for a 16-yard gain to the Wisconsin 44, and two plays later Brockington was in the end zone.
"Nothing but green grass," Brockington said of his view to pay dirt.
"I was like, 'He's open on the throw,' " Kaliakmanis said. "I probably shouldn't have done it, but I'm happy I did."
His teammates are, too, especially those of the cigar-puffing persuasion.
"I'll remember this for the rest of my life," Sori-Marin said.