The Badgers followed all the hallowed traditions of the Wisconsin-Minnesota season finale Sunday. They paraded around TCF Bank Stadium with Paul Bunyan's Axe, they displayed it triumphantly for their fans, and they pretended to chop down one of the goalposts with it.
But the most important tradition they honored may have been this one: They trampled the Gophers defense with their running game.
Dare Ogunbowale rushed for 161 yards, Taiwan Deal gained 92, and Wisconsin piled up 257 yards on the ground to run its winning streak over the Gophers to 12 straight games. It's also the 12th consecutive year that a Badger tailback has eclipsed 100 yards against Minnesota, and the eighth time in that span that a rusher has picked up more than 150.
"The running game," said quarterback Joel Stave, "was the best it's been, by far, all year."
That's actually amazing, despite Wisconsin's habit of blowing holes in the Gophers defense, because the Badgers severely increased their degree-of-difficulty this year. Hard as it is to believe, Wisconsin was ranked 14th — dead last — in rushing offense in Big Ten games this season, averaging 109.6 yards coming in. Northwestern held the Badgers to an unheard-of minus-26 yards on the ground last week in pulling an upset in Madison.
And then things got really tough: Already playing with three redshirt freshmen on their offensive line due to injuries, Wisconsin had to make it four when junior guard Walker Willis was injured last week. Tackle Beau Benzschawel moved inside to guard, reserve Jacob Maxwell took over at right tackle, and Wisconsin deployed its sixth different starting line of the year.
That was after coach Paul Chryst decided to leave tailback Corey Clement home, discipline for being cited for disorderly conduct last week.
Yet nothing changed about Wisconsin's attack, at least after Stave's ill-advised pass on Wisconsin's first play from scrimmage that the Gophers intercepted and returned for a touchdown. When the Badgers got the ball back, they drove it 67 yards for a TD on 10 plays — nine of them rushes. Next drive was the same: 73 yards, 14 plays, 13 of them runs.
"In the first half, we had 200 yards rushing [officially 199]. We haven't done that all year. That was phenomenal," Maxwell said. "And especially in Minnesota for the Axe — we couldn't have asked for a better time to bust out the rushing game."
They did more than bust it out. Wisconsin ran the ball 62 times; the Gophers ran 55 total plays of any kind. The Badgers held the ball for 40 minutes, 35 seconds, or more than twice Minnesota's time of possession.
The Gophers did more than their part by turning the ball over five times, but that's the sort of running game that continually wins this game.
"In preparation for this week, we watched last year's [Minnesota] game. … It's fun to watch those games," said senior left tackle Tyler Marz, the only non-freshman on the offensive line. "And when you put up yards like that, when you're running the ball more than passing, that's fun, too."