Zulgad: Gophers take positive step, finally leave Badgers seeing red

The Wisconsin Badgers entered the season ranked fourth in the Associated Press media poll and expected to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. It quickly became clear the Badgers weren’t nearly as good as initially believed and they came into Saturday’s game against the Gophers sitting at 7-4 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten.

Still, it was difficult to believe the Badgers were going to lose to Minnesota at Camp Randall Stadium. The Gophers hadn’t taken Paul Bunyan’s Axe from Wisconsin since 2003 and hadn’t defeated the Badgers in Madison since 1994.

That changed early Saturday evening as the Gophers completed a dominating performance against the Badgers by closing out a 37-15 victory that ended their 14-game losing streak and returned the Axe to the Twin Cities.

How important was this victory for the Gophers’ program? That was difficult to say in the immediate aftermath of a game that made Minnesota bowl eligible with six wins. On one hand, the Gophers are still only 5-13 in Big Ten play during P.J. Fleck’s two seasons as coach. There are many who are going to need to see far more than a victory over Wisconsin for them to believe that Fleck has turned around things.

But there is no denying the significance of finally beating an arch-rival — not to mention Fleck getting his first conference victory on the road — and also ending an up-and-down regular season on a definite high. Fleck’s second season had been filled with few positives — a 41-10 victory over Purdue two weeks ago would lead that list — and plenty of potholes.

The win over Purdue was followed by a disappointing 10-point loss last week to visiting Northwestern. There also was the 0-4 start in the Big Ten and the embarrassing 55-31 loss to a dreadful Illinois team that finally caused Fleck to fire defensive coordinator Robb Smith and name Joe Rossi as the interim replacement.

The Gophers gave up an average of 43.2 points per game under Smith, but cut that figure to 16.3 points per game under Rossi. Following Saturday’s victory, Fleck took the interim tag off Rossi’s title and named him his permanent defensive coordinator.

Rossi’s defense held Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor to 120 yards on 19 carries after he entered the game as the nation’s leading rusher. The Gophers also picked off Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook three times and forced a fumble by him on a sack. Minnesota scored 24 points off those four turnovers.

The success of the Gophers’ defense was made even more impressive by the fact senior linebacker Blake Cashman, Minnesota’s leading tackler, was ejected for targeting in the second quarter when he hit Badgers punt returner Jack Dunn as he fielded the ball.

The Gophers also got contributions from offense and special teams. This included a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown by Demetrius Douglas in the second quarter that made it 17-0, and a 121-yard effort on 26 carries from running back Mohamed Ibrahim. Ibrahim, whose running style makes him nearly impossible to bring down on the first attempt, also had a 10-yard touchdown run.

The Gophers held a 17-7 lead at halftime, but a late Badgers touchdown just before the end of the second quarter left one wondering if Minnesota was going to find a way to meltdown. Even when the Gophers led 23-7 after three quarters, it was difficult to believe the Gophers were really going to close this one out.

But that’s exactly what they did.

Doing what the Badgers had done to them so many times before, the Gophers did not let Wisconsin get it hands on the football much in the second half. Minnesota ran for 152 yards on 33 rushing attempts and got two fourth-quarter touchdowns from running back Bryce Williams. Both of Williams’ scores were set up by Hornibrook turnovers.

The Gophers finished with a time of possession advantage of 35 minutes, 6 seconds to 24:54 for the Badgers.

A year ago, Wisconsin came into TCF Bank Stadium and cruised to a 31-0 rout of the Gophers that put an end to Fleck’s first season in Minnesota. That left the Gophers with a 2-7 record in the Big Ten, a defense that gave up 70 points in its final two games and an offense that scored zero.

A year later things aren’t perfect when it comes to Fleck’s team and there remains plenty of work to be done, but what happened on Saturday in Madison at least could be considered a definite sign of progress for a program that needed it.