As Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman streaked behind the Wisconsin defense for a 51-yard touchdown, euphoria filled TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers started fast and used an explosive play to grab an early 7-0 advantage.
Fans saw so many possibilities in front of this team, including a Big Ten West Championship and Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Those opportunities slipped away as Wisconsin rolled past the Gophers in a driving snowstorm.
Minnesota struck first, but the Badgers executed a flawless scheme to control the final three quarters. Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan was efficient and completed 15 of 22 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-17 win.
Gophers’ quarterback Tanner Morgan faced pressure all day and was forced out of the pocket to extend plays. Wisconsin was being aggressive with the front-seven and Minnesota’s offensive line struggled to pick up rushers. Right tackle Daniel Faalele was injured in the first half, which clearly impacted Minnesota’s protections and personnel groupings. Morgan was sacked three times in the first half and tossed an interception against pressure. With Faalele out, the Gophers were unable to use their heavy personnel package to help the aerial and rushing attacks.
“We lost Daniel [Faalele] early, and that was hard to overcome,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “A lot of the stuff we had talked about and planned for had six offensive linemen where we’d be able to have different personnel and different groupings with him and to be able to add that sixth lineman would’ve been the best opportunity for us to be able to move the ball and score points.”
At one point, Morgan was hit directly in the knee and appeared to get up slow. After this contact, he didn’t look as sharp and his ball placement seemed to waver. The pressure and Minnesota’s inability to run the ball were two differences in this game. The Gophers averaged just 2.5 yards per carry and lost all of their offensive balance.
Unable to capitalize off a quick start
The Gophers created an explosive play when Bateman torched cornerback Semar Melvin. The Badgers were playing off coverage and Bateman used a beautiful stutter at the top of his route. He snapped off a post and Morgan perfectly placed the throw.
Following Minnesota’s first scoring drive, the offense pushed into Wisconsin territory. The Gophers faced a fourth-and-2 situation at the Badgers’ 35-yard-line, but Fleck elected to take a delay of game penalty and punt. On third-down, Seth Green was stuffed in the Wildcat formation. Fleck said the outcome of that play impacted his fourth-down decision.
“It’s fourth-and-a-long-2, you give Jonathan Taylor and the offense really good field position. Now all of a sudden, if we don’t get that, now they march down the field, it’s 7-7 and everybody is like, ‘why didn’t you punt and pin them down in their own territory?’ I felt like our defense was playing lights out at that particular time,” Fleck said. “If it was a fourth-and-1, we would have went for it. Fourth-and-a-long-2, a little bit different because the play before that, they stuffed it pretty good. That play had a lot to do with it.”
After the explosive play to Bateman, the offense started to lock up. Minnesota’s defense forced a fumble, but Morgan was intercepted on the next drive. Wisconsin continued to create havoc in the pocket and Morgan was sacked five times.
The Gophers’ rushing attack wasn’t consistent enough and it hurt the team’s offensive balance. During the midway point of the third quarter, this game started to slip out of Minnesota’s grasp. While trailing 17-7, Mohamed Ibrahim broke free for an explosive run off outside zone. Center John Michael Schmitz had a key reach block to spark the 36-yard gain. However, the Gophers’ drive stalled and Michael Lantz hit a 38-yard field goal. If Minnesota had scored a touchdown, it may have changed the game’s landscape.
In the fourth quarter, Minnesota also faced first-and-goal on Wisconsin’s 6-yard-line, but didn’t come away with any points. Those missed opportunities proved costly as the Gophers were unable to pull out of the deficit.
Badgers’ offensive design stands out
The Gophers’ defense was caught in mismatches throughout the day. Wisconsin’s coaching staff deserves credit for a well-executed scheme. Minnesota sent pressure a few times, but the Badgers perfectly timed screen passes to move the chains.
On third-and-5 in the second quarter, Wisconsin ran a key 20-yard middle screen to tight end Jake Ferguson. He broke three tackles and advanced into Minnesota territory. A few plays later, the Gophers sent a safety blitz and edge rusher Carter Coughlin dropped into coverage. Taylor ran a wheel route out of the backfield and made a difficult contested catch against Coughlin. The 28-yard touchdown reception helped the Badgers grab a 10-7 lead.
Wisconsin also opened the second half with an aggressive approach. Wide receiver Quintez Cephus stuttered at the top of his route and broke to the sideline for a 31-yard catch. Moments later, Cephus got open up the seam with Minnesota in Tampa-2. Safety Jordan Howden was late and Coan connected with Cephus for a 47-yard touchdown as linebacker Thomas Barber attempted to help. The score helped the Badgers grab a 10-point lead early in the third quarter.
After the Gophers kicked a field goal in the third quarter, Wisconsin used a reverse on the ensuing kickoff to position themselves at Minnesota’s 39-yard-line. Two play later, the Badgers dialed up another terrific design. They used misdirection and tossed a reverse to Kendric Pryor for a 26-yard touchdown. When Pryor turned the corner, Minnesota’s defense already lost edge contain.
Finally, on third-and-6 early in the fourth quarter, a screen to Garrett Groshek created a 70-yard gain. Running back Jonathan Taylor ended the drive with an 11-yard score, which put the game away. Minnesota couldn’t generate enough pressure without sending defenders and the Badgers capitalized by winning matchups on the perimeter.
Minnesota held Taylor to 76 yards and two short rushing touchdowns, but several deep completions by Coan changed the entire game.