Gophers’ Turn To Implode

All week long  the fear was there.

Knowing that its much-anticipated, steeped-in-tradition, just-try-and-get-tickets-for-it season-ending tilt with their non-conference rival the Cal Poly Mustangs was next week, would the Wisconsin football Badgers be able to focus on this week’s game with Minnesota?

Surely some measure of looking past the Gophers and the battle for the Paul Bunyan Axe in anticipation of facing the team that just this season pulled off the nearly-unthinkable sweep of the Mount Rushmore State with decisive wins over both South Dakota and South Dakota State was natural, was it not?

Well, that’s what it looked like early on. The Badgers were simply unwatchable in the first half against Minnesota on Saturday, as they stumbled and fumbled their way to a 21-7 halftime deficit.

But behind quarterback Dustin Sherer’s best half of the season, Wisconsin rallied for a remarkable 35-32 victory, the Badgers’ fifth straight win over their border rivals. The comeback was all the more remarkable as it was the first time this season that Wisconsin, now 6-5 overall and bowl eligible, was down at the half and came back to win. Most fans don’t need to be reminded of the games in Michigan against both the Wolverines and the Spartans in which the Badgers led at the half only to implode.

On Saturday at Camp Randall, the imploding came early. Well, not that early. First there was a botched handoff between Gopher quarterback Adam Weber and running back DeLeon Eskridge that gave the Badgers the ball at the Minnesota 10-yard-line. After another gutsy decision by Bret Bielema to go for it on fourth down, a heavily-pressured Sherer found Garrett Graham in the back of the end zone to put Wisconsin up quickly 7-0.

Then nothing went right for the Badgers. The Gophers dominated the line of scrimmage, limiting Wisconsin’s vaunted rushing attack to only 38 yards. The passing game was lousy, as Dustin Sherer (9-for-18 for 91 yards in the first 30 minutes) was a victim of dropped balls and his own jaw-dropping inaccuracy. Philip Welch had a field goal attempt blocked. Most significantly in falling behind 21-7, the Badgers became easy victims of the Gophers’ ball-hawking defense as they lost no less than three fumbles. And most disturbingly, receiver Kyle Jefferson was the victim of a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit that resulted in him lying motionless on the ground for several minutes before being carted away in an ambulance.

Fortunately, Bret Bielema was able to say after the game that initial tests on Jefferson’s head and neck injuries gave “very encouraging” results.

As distasteful as it may be to say, Jefferson’s scary injury seems now to have been the turning point of the game, perhaps sucking some life out of Minnesota and providing Wisconsin with a rallying point. Consider this: The result of the play that injured Jefferson was a fumble recovered by Minnesota, giving them the ball on their own 21-yard-line with 2:05 remaining on the clock and two time outs. Instead of attempting to score — and the Gophers were at that point having about as much trouble moving the ball on Wisconsin as John Madden has trouble inhaling a tender and juicy turducken — Gopher coach Tim Brewster, either feeling overconfident with his 14-point lead or thinking it unsavory to score again on a team that just had one of its players leave on a stretcher, ran out the clock.

In contrast, the Badgers responded to Jefferson’s injury by coming out for the third quarter hotter than Cheryl Tiegs circa 1978. All three drives started in the third quarter resulted in points and a 24-24 tie. Dustin Sherer was remarkable in the face of heavy pressure, throwing accurate strike after accurate strike, particularly on a key 3rd-and-7, 31-yard pass play to Issac Anderson on the second scoring drive of the quarter. Anderson and Sherer found an unexpected but undeniable chemistry in the game’s second half — Anderson had just one catch for 11 yards in the first half, but finished with six catches for 114 yards.  And while the Badgers’ run game couldn’t match last week’s ridiculous totals (441 yards), P.J. Hill still managed to rack up 117 yards and two touchdowns.

The Badgers’ defense, burned for so much of the first half, more than matched the offense’s intensity over the final 30 minutes, shutting down quarterback Adam Weber and therefore the entire Gopher offense, which only was able to muster 123 yards of offense in the second half. Of particular note was a flurry of series in the fourth quarter after the Badgers had come all the way back to tie the score. First the Badgers’ special teams came through with a safety on a fumbled kick-off return that gave Wisconsin its first lead since 7-0. Then on the Gophers’ next possession, Mike Newkirk came through with two sacks, the second one resulting in another safety that put Wisconsin up 28-24. Then Jonathan Casillas came up with a fumble recovery on the Gophers’ next drive, a turnover that Wisconsin turned into a quick two-play touchdown drive to make the score 35-24. The Badgers’ performance Saturday was reminiscent of their performance in the Michigan game, only with the halves reversed. It was simply a remarkable turnaround as opposed to a remarkable collapse.

But even though the 81,228 fans in attendance (including many Minnesota fans) probably assumed that midway through the fourth quarter with the Badgers up by eleven that the Paul Bunyan Axe was not going to be enjoying the winter in the land of the Mall of America and Prince, the Gophers weren’t quite ready to lay down. The Gophers then went on what was undoubtedly their best drive of the second half, a 60-yard, 11-play drive highlighted by a 4th-and-18 conversion from Adam Weber to freshman receiver Brandon Green. When Shady Salamon scored on a one-yard touchdown plunge, suddenly the Gophers were only down 35-32 with over four minutes on the clock.

When Wisconsin’s run game then came up short (as it had for all of the first half), and the Badgers were forced to punt, it was looking like perhaps the Gophers might be able to pull out a last-second victory after all. But like the Packers had come up short in last week’s border battle, Minnesota could not capitalize on its last chance as Badgers corner Niles Brinkley intercepted Adam Weber on a 4th-and-4, ending any hopes Minnesota might have had of at least pushing the game to overtime.

Who said the Badgers can’t overcome adversity? Well, we all did, but the team clearly proved otherwise on Saturday with its thrilling, immensely impressive comeback. Now fans have to hope that the Badgers didn’t exhaust themselves in the name of retaining the Paul Bunyan Axe so much that they’ll be unable to withstand the onslaught that will be the Cal Poly Mustangs in next week’s regular-season finale. Because that’s the game we’re all really waiting for.

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