Camp Randall Stadium’s clock struck zero as college football’s oldest trophy rested on the goal post. The stage was set for a celebration 15 years in the making. “Row the Boat” chants filled the air in Camp Randall Stadium as head coach P.J. Fleck braced himself for a full cooler of water. An icy shower poured down on the second-year head coach as players celebrated behind him.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan took a knee with 26 seconds remaining and the moment finally arrived for Minnesota’s football program. With a 37-15 victory over the Badgers, the Gophers ended a streak that lasted 5,495 days and meant Paul Bunyan’s Axe was set for a return to Dinkytown – a place it hasn’t been since 2003.
Wide receiver Tyler Johnson and kicker Emmit Carpenter led the charge as a sea of maroon and gold jerseys sprinted to the end zone to claim the trophy. They chopped the axe at the goal post and sprinted around the edge of their rival’s stadium to share the trophy with fans in the stands.
The Gophers picked up their first win against the Badgers since kicker Rhys Lloyd sealed a 37-34 victory in 2003. Until Saturday, 1994 was the last time Minnesota left Madison with the program’s most treasured trophy. Despite an inconsistent season, the Gophers still managed to escape enemy territory with the prize they have waited so long to hoist. P.J. Fleck earned his first road Big Ten win as the program qualified for a bowl game for the first time since 2016.
Four defensive takeaways, one long scoring drive and a 69-yard punt return touchdown by Demetrius Douglas helped Minnesota burst out to a big lead at Camp Randall. They never took a foot off the gas. Minnesota’s defense held Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor to 120 rushing yards and the offense scored 24 points off turnovers.
The offensive line wore down the Wisconsin defensive front behind a combined 201 yards and three touchdowns from Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams.
The Gophers’ offensive route concepts
The Gophers’ first drive stalled near midfield following a 23-yard completion from Tanner Morgan to Johnson. Wisconsin played off coverage on Johnson out of the slot and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca took advantage of it. The coaches quickly identified excellent concepts to exploit the Badgers’ coverage schemes.
This helped Minnesota get fantastic man-to-man matchups with its receivers. One example came out of a 3×1 formation when Morgan found wide receiver Rashod Bateman for 17 yards over the middle. Minnesota had three different receivers grab completions of 10-plus yards on the second drive of the game. The play design and concepts helped create more favorable man-to-man situations, especially via intermediate slant action. Johnson had four catches for 76 yards, including a key 28-yard grab.
Third-down situations and a blossoming pass rush
Minnesota’s defense managed to have the Badgers offense in third-down situations three times on their opening drive alone. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook converted with two completions, but Coney Durr forced an incompletion. Kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a 31-yard field goal and Wisconsin came away with zero points. The inconsistent third-down defense allowed Wisconsin to stay within striking distance in the first half.
Linebacker Blake Cashman was ejected for targeting in the second quarter after delivering a big hit on a punt return. The play was reviewed and officials determined Cashman made contact with the returner’s head or neck area.
Minnesota responded on the drive following Cashman’s ejection. Hornibrook tried to force a throw to tight end Jake Ferguson, but threw into triple coverage. The pass was intercepted by cornerback Coney Durr in the red zone and Minnesota took advantage with points. Morgan found Johnson for 28 yards off a corner route. It was a beautiful route where he won with sudden movement out of the break.
The Gophers faced two fourth-and-short at situations in the red zone. During one situation, Seth Green plunged forward for a first down out of the Wildcat formation. Moments later, tight end Jake Paulson crashed hard to block the right edge and running back Mohamed Ibrahim sprinted off left tackle, untouched for a 10-yard touchdown.
The defense quickly forced a three-and-out on the next possession and Demetrius Douglas took a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown. He hesitated and let the contain blow past him before following his blocks. The Gophers quickly led 17-0 with just over two minutes remaining in the half.
However, the defense gave up an 8-play, 76-yard scoring drive. With the Badgers deep in their own territory, Minnesota surrendered a 12-yard rush by Jonathan Taylor. It looked as if Wisconsin would run out the clock, but the positive gain shifted the team’s entire approach. They quickly worked their way up the field and cut the Gophers’ lead to 10 points before half.
Minnesota had trouble getting pressure on Hornibrook, who returned after missing the better part of four games because of a head injury. He converted four third-down situations with his arm when Minnesota struggled to get pressure. The Gophers occasionally sent blitz packages, but weren’t able to get the rush home. In several of those situations, coaches sent three or four man rushes and were unable to get any heat on the quarterback.
They managed to make this happen at key moments in the second half.
On third-and-15, Wisconsin picked up 11 yards off a pick play to Aaron Cruickshank. The Badgers tried to convert on fourth down, but pressure by Carter Coughlin caused an overthrow by Hornibrook. Minnesota took over with perfect field position to extend the lead.
Moments later, an 18-yard rush by Mohamed Ibrahim sparked the offensive drive as he carried defenders for additional yards. The redshirt freshman has been running very hard and picking up yards after contact this season. He had 26 carries for 121 yards and a touchdown. Minnesota’s offensive line and tight ends dominated the ground game, opening up huge interior rushing lanes. It was the driving force behind the Gophers’ victory. In the fourth quarter, Bryce Williams ran for a pair of touchdowns to put the game away.
Early in the second half, the Gophers only came away with six red zone points, but managed to use timely takeaways to pull away. Linebacker Julian Huff made a diving interception off a deflection by cornerback Kiondre Thomas. Huff stepped up in a big way after Cashman was ejected. Huff had four tackles and an interception in three quarters of action. His brother, Jacob Huff, also led the team with 10 tackles as he played physical around the box. Coughlin also finished the game with a huge strip-sack to put the game on ice.
Minnesota managed to take care of the football and created 24 points off takeaways, which made a major difference in this game.