Gophers take back Axe, beat Wisconsin 37-15
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The giddy Minnesota players ran one way down the field, with one lucky Golden Gopher holding tightly on to Paul Bunyan’s Axe as they raced toward a goal post.
Coach P.J. Fleck went the other way, jogged past the end zone and gave someone a bear hug.
Fourteen years of frustration, all gone in one memorable night at Camp Randall Stadium.
Mohamed Ibrahim ran for 121 yards and a score, a resurgent defense held up on the road and Minnesota ran away from Wisconsin for a 37-15 win on Saturday to snap a 14-game losing streak in the rivalry and reclaim the precious axe.
“This is why you coach. These are moments and memories you’ll remember forever,” Fleck said.
The Gophers (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten) also became bowl eligible for the first time under the excitable second-year head coach.
And yet that important step forward for the program was overshadowed, at least for one night, with the victory to take back the axe. It was Minnesota’s first win in the series since 2003, and the first victory in Madison since 1994.
“When you hold the axe, now you know why everybody wants it so much,” Fleck said. “It’s a very surreal feeling.”
They earned it by following Wisconsin’s blueprint for success, pounding away on the ground in the second half and capitalizing on four turnovers.
Bryce Williams ran for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, both coming on drives after turnovers by Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
Jonathan Taylor, the nation’s leading rusher, had 120 yards on 19 carries for the Badgers (7-5, 5-4). Hornibrook, starting for the first time since missing two games while in the concussion protocol, threw three interceptions and lost a fumble on a sack.
Minnesota scored 24 points off those miscues.
Hornibrook was listed as questionable during the week after his second concussion in a month. Coach Paul Chryst said the team felt confident that Hornibrook was ready.
“Anytime you turn the ball over that number of times, you make it tough on yourselves,” Chryst said.
What a turnaround for Minnesota’s defense since Joe Rossi took over as interim coordinator following a 55-31 loss to Illinois on Nov. 3. The Gophers have allowed just 49 points in the three games since that blowout.
And they had to play Saturday without top linebacker Blake Cashman for the majority of the game after the standout linebacker was ejected for targeting on a punt return early in the second quarter.
Jacob Huff had 10 tackles and forced fumble for the Gophers.
The Gophers took control in a pivotal stretch late in the second quarter that started when Ibrahim ran untouched into the front left corner of the end zone on fourth-and-1 from the 10 with 2:21 left in the half.
Normally sure-handed receiver A.J. Taylor dropped a third-down pass to force the Wisconsin punt returned by Demetrius Douglas for a 17-0 lead with 1:05 left.
Wisconsin looked like it would take momentum back after Jake Ferguson made an athletic, twisting catch in the end zone on a 7-yard pass from Hornibrook with 1 second left to get to 17-7.
But the Badgers couldn’t convert on fourth-and-3 from the Minnesota 44 on the opening drive of third quarter. It was a sign of things to come for Wisconsin.
“We didn’t play good enough football to earn the right to keep the axe,” Chryst said.
SEE IT, BELIEVE IT
Fleck said he had his team visualize all week what it would be like to claim back the axe.
“Being able to visualize this was huge,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said.
Minnesota: The Gophers ran for 152 yards on 33 carries in the second half and went 5 of 9 on third downs. They held the ball for 21 after halftime and forced two turnovers over the final 5 minutes. It was Wisconsin-like football.
Wisconsin: The loss epitomized an underwhelming season for the offense. Taylor is the team’s best big-play threat, though the Gophers keyed on the star running back early in the game. Hornibrook has been in and out of the lineup for much of the last five weeks because of injury. The passing game sputtered for much of that time whether Hornibrook or backup Jack Coan has been behind center. Hornibrook was 22 of 33 for 189 yards and two scores.
Both teams await their bowl destinations. Representatives from the Citrus, Holiday and Pinstripe Bowl were at the game.
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