Badgers keep Bunyan Ax after rolling past Gophers
MADISON, Wis. — James White raced 15 times through Minnesota’s defense for 175 yards rushing and three touchdowns, carrying Wisconsin to a 38-13 victory over Minnesota on Saturday, the ninth straight time the Badgers have beaten the Gophers to keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Montee Ball let his partner steal the show for most of the afternoon but still muscled his way for 166 yards on 24 attempts and two fourth-quarter scores to put the game out of reach and push the Badgers (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) to their 21st win in a row at Camp Randall Stadium. That’s one behind LSU for the longest current streak in major college football.
Freshman Philip Nelson was the surprise starting quarterback for the Gophers (4-3, 0-3). He threw two touchdown passes, but the Badgers turned one interception into a third-quarter field goal. Three plays after the second pick, Ball scored his second touchdown after another spirit-breaking burst through the middle.
Nelson was thrust into action for Minnesota because MarQueis Gray’s sprained left ankle wasn’t quite right and Max Shortell hurt his neck the week before.
Wisconsin has spoiled Minnesota’s upset hopes every year since 2003 and hasn’t lost at home since 1994 in this border-state series that began in 1890. The Gophers played well enough on defense early to have a chance heading into the second half.
But as the Badgers so often have done, they just kept pounding the ball into the line and watching White and Ball go to work. Sometimes they had to wiggle back and forth to find holes, but they routinely bounced off the first tackler or two. Other carries were much easier, with only the green of the turf and the red of the end zone ahead of them.
The Gophers’ harassment of Joel Stave, who finished 7 for 15 for 106 yards, barely made a difference.
The Gophers took the opening kickoff, so Nelson didn’t have any time on the sideline to get any more nervous than he surely already was. Zach Mottla’s third-down shotgun snap sailed to Nelson’s left, and he had to hustle to cover the ball so the Gophers could punt from their 16.
Nelson overcame that ominous start with a six-play, 65-yard cruise to the end zone later in the first quarter. He found wide-open Drew Goodger for 18 yards for his first college completion and Brandon Green from 16 yards out for the score. Jordan Wettstein’s extra point banged off the right goal post, though, keeping the Gophers from tying the game.
That was Wettstein’s first miss in 18 extra-point attempts this year, but he’s only 6 for 12 on field-goal tries with misses from 32 and 26 yards. Wettstein’s 51-yard try at the end of the first half had plenty of distance and even appeared to sail directly over the left upright, but it was ruled wide to preserve Wisconsin’s 14-6 lead.
After dominating Purdue with 645 total yards in last week’s 38-14 win, the Badgers didn’t move the ball with the same proficiency, particularly early. This is an improved Gophers defense but still a group that let Iowa’s Mark Weisman rush for 177 yards and a touchdown and Northwestern’s Venric Mark gain 182 yards and two scores on the ground.
Stave was especially erratic. He also hung on too long and took two sacks, by D.L. Wilhite and Ra’Shede Hageman for a total loss of 20 yards, to push the Badgers out of field-goal range and forced their third of four first-half punts.
But the Gophers, relying frequently on draws and zone read runs up the middle by Nelson, didn’t do much to help their defense out. It was only a matter of time that the Badgers were able to wear down the Gophers with what they’ve done so well for so many years — ramming the ball straight ahead and reaping the rewards.
After the Gophers were stopped on third-and-1 at the Wisconsin 49 for no gain, Christian Eldred’s punt went just 19 yards. And five plays later, White was in the end zone again after a 34-yard burst with 1:49 left stretched the lead to eight.
Coach Jerry Kill decided to burn Nelson’s redshirt, giving the kid who grew up near Madison with parents who met in school at Wisconsin a chance to make his debut in a difficult environment. Nelson, who moved to Minnesota before high school and was a highly sought recruit out of Mankato, finished 13 for 24 for 149 yards. He ran 16 times for 68 yards.
But he didn’t have much to work with. Starting left tackle Ed Olson didn’t make the trip because of an injury. Gray played wide receiver because several of Minnesota’s top passing targets were hurt.
Over these nine straight wins against the Gophers, the Badgers are averaging about 39 points per game and winning by a margin of more than 16 points.