Gophers replay Gophers 37, Wisconsin 15

The recap

For the first time since 2003, the Gophers beat Wisconsin for possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe, and they decisively ended the Badgers’ stranglehold on the trophy by extending a 17-7 halftime lead to 37-7 late in the fourth quarter. Mohamed Ibrahim’s 121 rushing yards, Demetrius Douglas’ 69-yard punt return for a touchdown and a dominant effort by a defense that forced four turnovers led the victory.

“It means a lot,’’ Gophers linebacker Thomas Barber said, “not just for me, but for the state of Minnesota. I kind of got a little emotional at the end when I realized this is really gonna happen for us.”

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Welcome home

With the Axe secured, the Gophers returned to Minneapolis by bus Saturday night and invited fans to celebrate at their indoor practice facility. The team arrived about 11 p.m., and coach P.J. Fleck addressed the crowd of about 1,500 while players showed off the Axe.

Among those Fleck saluted was the late Nick Connelly, an offensive tackle who was forced to retire from football last year because of concussions and who died Sept. 19 at age 22 from an aggressive form of cancer.

After going over game highlights and pointing out key players, Fleck left a cheering crowd with this:

“Within two years of this culture being here, your Axe is back!”

Drop haunts Badgers

Douglas’ punt return for a touchdown, which gave the Gophers a 17-0 lead, probably shouldn’t have happened, if you ask the Badgers. Wisconsin was forced to punt from its 27-yard line late in the second quarter after wide-open wide receiver A.J. Taylor dropped a third-and-8 pass that easily would have given the Badgers a first down.

Cashing in no turnovers

The Gophers scored 24 points off Wisconsin’s four turnovers. Those 24 points matched Minnesota’s total in the other eight Big Ten games combined.

Up next: Bowl game, TBD

The skinny: The waiting game starts for the Gophers, who might not know their bowl destination until Sunday, when the College Football Playoff field and selection committee games are announced. The variable is whether the Big Ten lands two teams or three teams in the six major bowls — Cotton, Orange (the two national semifinals), along with Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Peach.

Jerry Palm, a analyst who specializes in bowl projections, has the Gophers facing Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27 at Yankee Stadium.

Other possible destinations are the Redbox Bowl vs. a Pac-12 team on Dec. 31 in Santa Clara, Calif. That scenario likely would take the Big Ten landing three teams in selection committee bowls. Also potentially in play are the Quick Lane Bowl vs. an ACC opponent on Dec. 26 in Detroit, though the Gophers played there in 2015; and the First Responder Bowl vs. an ACC or Conference USA opponent on Dec. 26 in Dallas.

In the meantime, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and his staff have hit the road recruiting, with the Dec. 19 early national signing day approaching.

Randy Johnson