They didn't come out lethargic or pouting as if a favorite shirt had been tossed out accidentally in spring cleaning.

The division title? Vanished before the Gophers took the field Saturday afternoon. They couldn't change that outcome, no matter how much they'd love a do-over. They had to accept the hand they dealt themselves.

Their response is what mattered.

In that space, they found something meaningful.

The Gophers hitched up their trousers and took the fight to their biggest rivals in a performance that put their best version on display.

The Gophers reclaimed Paul Bunyan's Axe and celebrated with that gigantic trophy as fans stormed the field after a 23-13 win over the Wisconsin Badgers.

"This is a really special moment," coach P.J. Fleck said.

That moment turned Huntington Bank Stadium into a house party, with a jam-packed student section dancing and singing and making college football feel important in this big-league market.

The Gophers gave them reason to cut it loose.

Fleck did his best coaching job of the season from Friday afternoon to late Saturday night in addressing the "elephant in the room" with his players.

Fleck found the right words to get his team locked-in emotionally, mentally and physically in response to being eliminated from Big Ten West contention with Iowa's win at Nebraska on Friday.

With the Axe and an eighth win still at stake, the Gophers charged through the door as if nothing else mattered.

"There wasn't one person sad about what happened with Iowa," Fleck said. "Would we like it to be different? Sure. The pouting was done. They were just ready to play."

The defense, under the direction of coordinator Joe Rossi, flew around like it was operating on jet fuel. The Badgers offense managed six points. Two field goals. That's it. Six points by a team that averaged 32 points during a seven-game winning streak.

Rossi oversaw a defensive makeover so extreme that he deserves national recognition. The Gophers allowed 30.1 points per game last season. They nearly cut that statistic in half this season, holding opponents to 18 points per game, the first time they have finished below 20 points in scoring defense since 1999.

From front to back, Rossi's unit swarmed and tackled the Badgers with force and purpose. Wisconsin's most effective play was to throw deep and hope for a pass interference penalty. It worked a few times.

The Gophers defense outperformed one of college football's top defenses. They won in the trenches against a program that prides itself on dominating the trenches.

"That was exceptional," Fleck said of the effort.

Wisconsin's freshman tailback Braelon Allen repeatedly ran into a brick wall in accumulating only 47 rushing yards after eclipsing 100 yards in seven consecutive games.

Allen entered the game averaging 7.59 yards per carry. The Gophers limited him to 2.8 yards per carry. The game was won right there because Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz couldn't win it with his arm.

The Gophers kept making clutch plays whenever they needed one. Freshman cornerback Justin Walley won a wrestling match for a 50-50 ball that ended with an interception. The Gophers turned the turnover into a touchdown.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan regrouped after throwing a pick-six on a tipped pass in the first half and was efficient in the passing game. The senior showed a steady hand in completing 11 of 16 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown pass to Chris Autman-Bell that proved to be the deciding points.

The Gophers defense handled the rest. The Badgers looked futile in trying to mount a comeback. The Gophers kept swarming and tackling, relentless to the final seconds.

A mad dash to grab the Axe commenced once the clock reached 00:00, followed by a celebration remindful of Penn State in '19.

The Gophers did not win the Big Ten West when it was there for the taking, and that will inevitably spark what-if conversations. That's understandable. But as fans rushed onto the field to join Gophers players in an impromptu party, with the Axe being paraded somewhere in the sea of bodies, the mood was only joyous.