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Badgers Beat Gophers 31-21
November 28, 2015

Turnovers and an inability to stop the run doomed the Minnesota Gophers to a 31-21 loss to Wisconsin. With a chance to secure a bowl game and to beat the Badgers for the first time since 2003, the Gophers dropped a deuce on the field.

Even the first appearance by Jerry Kill since his resignation as coach due to health reasons a month before couldn’t provide the inspiration needed for a better performance. Only a 2 -point underdog, Minnesota hoped to regain the Paul Bunyan Axe. The Gophers have had three coaches (not counting interim coach Jeff Horton in 2010) since the Axe was last in Minnesota hands.

Minnesota got a break early. After receiving the kickoff and being unable to move, Minnesota punted, and the Badgers started first their own 18. On the first play, Joel Stave threw a pass to the left flat that got nowhere near intended-receiver Alex Erickson. Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun picked it off at the 16 and ran it in for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said the play was a run with a pass option “depending on the look” and that Stave knew it was a dumb play. “He owned it. The way we came back and did respond. The response was huge.”

The response was a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown drive with Stave completing a third-down pass to Erickson on the first series. The other nine plays were on the ground, Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Smith bringing the ball inside the five and Derek Watt and Alec Ingold bringing it in.

After another three-and-out and Minnesota punt, Deal and Ogunbowle did the heavy lifting on the ground during a 14-play drive that again had a third-down completion to Erickson for the only pass. Deal got the touchdown for a 14-7 lead on play into the second quarter.

The Gophers mixed passes and runs for a 71-yard drive capped by a six-yard touchdown run by Rodney Smith to tie the game.

At this point, turnovers became key. Leidner was hit by linebacker Joe Schubert at his 34, and cornerback Darius Hillary recovered for Wisconsin. Ogunbolwe carried three times before Deal got a big hole for a 13-yard touchdown run and a 21-14 Badgers lead with five minutes left in the half.

Leidner, after nearly being picked off by linebacker Jack Cichy on second-and-10 from his 30, hit K. J. Maye for a 15-yard gain, only to have Michael Caputo knock the ball loose. Hillary recovered again, and the Badgers had the ball at the Minnesota 48.

Six runs, the final for 18 yards by Ogunbowale, gave the Badgers another touchdown at a 28-14 lead with 1:11 remaining in the half. Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys chose to run out the clock rather than try to get points back.

Stave passed only six times in the half, completing three to his own receivers, while the Badgers covered 199 yards (131 by Ogunbowale) on 35 rushes. Chryst said when the runs work, it makes a coach look smart. “The fun thin when you run the ball: it takes everyone.”

Minnesota did a better job of stopping the run in the second half, and Chryst admitted, “Maybe I got too conservative.”

It took another turnover for the Badgers to get their only three points of the half, and it could have been more if not for an unnecessary penalty by Cichy. Under pressure, Leidner had a pass tipped and picked off at the Minnesota 48 by Schobert, who ran it back all the way. However, Cichy, behind the play, hit Minnesota’s Joe Cichy and was flagged for a personal foul, nullifying the runback. After a review, the officials disqualified Cichy for targeting.

The Badgers still got a 46-yard field goal from Rafael Gaglione for a 31-14 lead. Gaglione later connected on a 40-yard field goal, but Wisconsin was penalized for holding; Gaglione’s next attempt, from 50 yards, was short.

Wisconsin still had a 17-point lead into the fourth quarter and worked the clock without gaining many yards the rest of the way. Leidner led a quick scoring drive with a 27-yard touchdown pass to Drew Wolitarsky to pull the Gophers within 10 with 6:42 left, but it wasn’t enough.

With a 5-7 record, Minnesota still has an outside chance at a bowl game, but the anticipation of a breakout season never happened. The Gophers had three three-point wins over nonconference opponents and two conference wins over bottom-feeders Purdue and Illinois. They looked more impressive in losses to ranked teams: Texas Christian in the season opener and to Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa in Claeys’s first three games.

Wisconsin had been ranked until a loss the previous week to Northwester, leaving the Gophers and their fans optimistic about the regular-season finale. Whatever the reason, Minnesota came up short with an uninspiring performance.

“I think that we played awfully well in the first game against TCU,” said Claeys, “and then from there it’s been just a weird season.”

Gopher Holes: Minnesota’s lead in its 125-game series with Wisconsin is down to 59-58-1. The Gophers are 24-41-3 since the rivalry for Paul Bunyan’Axe began.

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