Zulgad: Just like old times: Gophers fall flat, prove to be no match for Wisconsin in battle for Big Ten West title

MINNEAPOLIS — The start looked too good to be true. On the Gophers’ second play from scrimmage Saturday, in a game that would decide the Big Ten West champion, Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan faked a handoff to Rodney Smith and then threw a strike deep downfield for Rashod Bateman.

The Gophers’ standout wide receiver got behind Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Semar Melvin, hauled in the pass around the 20-yard line and raced into the end zone to give the Gophers a 7-0 lead only 2 minutes, 30 seconds into the first quarter. The crowd of 53,756 at TCF Bank Stadium — many of whom had shown up on campus in the early morning hours to watch ESPN’s College GameDay — reveled in the moment.

It looked like a day that had been a celebration of Gophers football from the start might continue into the evening. Only that proved to be far from the case. Final score: Badgers 38, Gophers 17.

So what happened?

Badgers coach Paul Chryst put on a tutorial of how to be prepared for a game of this magnitude and largely because of that Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2) will play Ohio State in the Big Ten title game on Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. The Gophers (10-2, 7-2) had their hopes of remaining in contention for a berth in the College Football playoff end, had to surrender Paul Bunyan’s Axe back to the Badgers and almost certainly will be headed to a lesser bowl instead of the Rose Bowl.

It looks like the Gophers could end up playing Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. The Gophers will fall from the eighth spot in the College Football Playoff rankings when the latest rankings come out Tuesday and Wisconsin will move up from 12th.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The Gophers had gone into Madison last season and came away with a 37-15 victory. That ended the Gophers’ 14-game losing streak against Wisconsin and was their first victory in Madison since 1994. It also was the launching pad for the Gophers’ run of success this season that began with nine consecutive victories before a loss two weeks ago in Iowa. That defeat was only by four points.

What happened Saturday left many shaking their heads as the Badgers held a 28-point lead in the fourth quarter before the Gophers scored a late and meaningless touchdown. By that point the majority of Minnesota fans had decided it was no longer worth braving the snow that followed the sleet that was falling to open the game. What was left was a contingent of Wisconsin fans who filled TCF Bank Stadium with a chorus of “Let’s Go Badgers, Let’s Go Badgers.”

So where did it go wrong for P.J. Fleck’s team? The Gophers were only down by three at halftime, so this wasn’t a blowout until the second half. A definite turning point occurred in the first quarter with the Gophers in possession of the ball at the Wisconsin 35-yard line and facing fourth-and-2.

Fleck had used a timeout with the Gophers facing third-and-2 from the 35 and then ran Wildcat with Seth Green taking the snap and trying to get the first down. That didn’t work but the assumption was Fleck had little to lose by going for it. Instead, the Gophers sent out punter Jacob Herbers.

“The biggest thing is field-position battle,” Fleck said in describing his decision. “It’s fourth-and-a-long-2, you give Jonathan Taylor and that offense really good field postion. Now all of a sudden if we don’t get that, now they march down 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. … At the time you only know what you know, you can only gather the information based on what you see. That was the decision. If it was fourth-and-1, we would have went for it.”

If Fleck really thought his defense was playing so well, he wouldn’t have feared turning the ball over at the Badgers 35. That call went a long way toward Minnesota’s momentum disappearing. The Gophers were still up by a touchdown at the end of the opening quarter, but the Badgers got a 26-yard field goal from Zach Hintze on their first full drive of the second quarter and then took the lead for good on Jack Coan’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Jonathan Taylor shortly before halftime.

That was among the curious plays in the game by a defense that seemed to wear down against the Badgers. Taylor caught the touchdown pass at the 7-yard line with defensive end Carter Coughlin on him and backed Coughlin into the end zone. Coughlin was no match in coverage for one of the nation’s best running backs who had four receiving touchdowns entering Saturday.

The Badgers took a 10-point lead in the third quarter as Coan put a perfect touch on a 47-yard touchdown pass that wide receiver Quintez Cephus caught at the Minnesota 15 before going into the end zone ahead of linebacker Thomas Barber. There did not appear to be anyone on the field to cover Cephers, who had been picked up too late by safety Jordan Howden and was too speedy for Barber.

This was all part of a masterfully coached game by Chryst. One of the most impressive calls by the Wisconsin staff came after the Gophers had pulled within 17-10 in the third quarter. Aron Cruickshank returned the kickoff 7 yards before reversing it to Isaac Guerendo. Guerendo raced 49 yards to the Gophers 39-yard line and two plays later the Badgers ran a misdirection to Kendric Pryor that went 26 yards for a touchdown and a 14-point lead.

The Gophers, meanwhile, never seemed able to recapture the momentum they had early and it appeared Morgan was hampered by a leg injury for much of the second half.  Any hope of a comeback ended when Morgan’s back-to-back passes for Tyler Johnson in the end zone early in the fourth quarter fell incomplete. The second came on fourth down and the Badgers responded with a screen pass that went for 70 yards deep into Gophers territory on the ensuing drive.

The hope has to be that this will be a learning experience for Fleck and his program. The loss doesn’t make the season a failure — a 10-win football season at the University of Minnesota can’t be called a failure — but a fantastic opportunity for the Gophers’ to make their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1961 season appears to be gone.

The way the Gophers lost also can’t sit well. These aren’t supposed to be the same old Gophers who so often were overmatched against Wisconsin. A last-second, down to the wire defeat would have been tough to swallow but the Gophers would have known they belonged on the same field with Wisconsin, both when it came to coaching and personnel. Unfortunately, by early Saturday evening that wasn’t the case.

Instead, most of the Gophers faithful were long gone by the time the Badgers raced across the field to get their Axe back. It was an all too familiar scene for a program that thought those days were over.