Paul Bunyan’s Axe is certainly enjoying its time in Madison, as it decided to stay in the Badgers trophy case for the 13th straight season thanks to an opportunistic defense.
It was a tale of two halves for the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers (10-2, 7-2 B1G), who struggled to do anything on offense and stop anything the Minnesota Gophers (8-4, 5-4 B1G) were doing heading in to the half.
UW’s defense played both the goat in the first half — allowing 226 yards and all 17 of Minnesota’s points — as well as the hero in the second half. Such is the case when you pick off Mitch Leidner four times and turn those four interceptions in to 14 points.
The Gophers senior quarterback finished his career just like he started it — by getting dominated by UW’s defense:
UW’s victory also evened the all-time series at 59-59-8. It also saved a potential spot in the College Football Playoff.
No pick was bigger than senior Sojourn Shelton’s pick early in the fourth quarter with the Badgers down 17-10. He returned Leidner’s pass to 40 yards and three plays later it was Corey Clement punching it in from two yards out.
Yet, things were far from over given the performance of UW’s defense up until that point. Wisconsin’s defense saw a potentially historic season literally slipping through its fingers, buckled down and took it to Leidner and company.
Minnesota’s great pass protection began to break down, as the team that gave up just nine sacks all season long gave up five sacks on the day to UW. Couple that with a clamp down on the run game and Wisconsin allowed minus-7 yards to the Gophers in the final stanza.
After allowing 113 yards on the ground to Minnesota in the first half, the Badger defense gave up just 13 total yards on the ground in the second half and 60 total yards to the visitors in the second stanza.
Sophomore linebacker T.J. Edwards racked up a game-high 11 tackles after looking like he was in danger of missing most of the game following getting rolled up on during the first play from scrimmage for the Gophers.
Junior linebacker T.J. Watt finished with six tackles, 1.5 sacks and a key quarterback hurry as well.
Somewhat lost in the defensive turnaround was the performance of senior quarterback Bart Houston. He came in to spark Wisconsin a bit in the first half, but he would be called on for far more than a few series in this game.
After Alex Hornibrook hit head-first on the turf following a roll-out late in the second quarter, Houston was called on to lead the offense the rest of the way.
He ended the game 9 of 14 for 193 yards and had the key 16-yard pass on the drive that tied the game at 17-17 with 11:58 to play in the game.
Senior running back Corey Clement got it going in the second half as well, topping the 100-yard mark for the seventh time this season. He finished the game with 100 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
However, all of that almost meant nothing to the senior following a potentially game-changing fumble on the drive following his first touchdown of the day.
Instead, the defense stood up and forced a three-and-out and Wisconsin took the ball 83 yards in three plays with Clement redeeming himself with another two-yard touchdown rumble to make it 24-17 Wisconsin.
It was Wisconsin’s first lead of the game and they would never look back.
Now it is time to look forward, as the Badgers will meet No. 8 Penn State (10-2, 8-1 B1G) in the Big Ten Championship game on Saturday in Indianapolis, Ind.