MADISON—The Wisconsin Badgers (9-0 overall, 6-0 Big Ten) tied up all the loose ends, concluding their 2004 home season with a perfect record in a 38-14 romp over rival Minnesota (6-4, 3-4) in way of reclaiming the historic Paul Bunyan Axe trophy. In dominating fashion, the Badger offense racked up an impressive 525 yards of total offense on 86 plays from scrimmage — both season highs for the team — while limiting a Gopher ground attack that ranked No. 4 in the nation to just 73 net yards.
The Badgers, who are 9-0 for just the third time in school history, were able to dictate the pace of the game through a strong defensive performance and a sputtering Gopher offense that failed to get in gear as the Badgers jumped out to score on each of their first five possessions. On the season, Wisconsin had averaged just 21.1 points per game going into Saturday’s contest, but by the end of the first frame, the Badgers had put three touchdowns on the board.
“It all went according to plan,” Wisconsin junior wide receiver Brandon Williams said. “We really stayed on the script today and made everything work…every week we’ve been getting better. We haven’t been declining. We felt it was just a matter of time before we had an explosion and this was the perfect time.”
Senior tailback Anthony Davis set the tone early, touching the ball five times for 48 yards on UW’s opening drive, before sophomore quarterback John Stocco snuck the ball into the end zone to give the Badgers the first score of the game.
Stocco, who has steadily improved with each game this season, produced the best performance of his young UW career, completing 19 of 26 passes for 297 yards and a touchdown. The Richfield, Minn., native recorded two rushing scores on the afternoon as well.
“I thought our offense was really outstanding today, led by John (Stocco),” Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said. “You know playing against your home state school is meaningful, and he had one of the better quarterback performances that we’ve had in a long time.”
After forcing a three-and-out from the Gophers on their first possession, the Badgers took over from their own 34-yard line. After missing Owen Daniels with his first passing attempt of the drive, Stocco connected his next seven consecutive passes, including a 17-yard dart to the back corner of the end zone to junior Jonathan Orr, giving the Badgers a 14-0 lead.
“I thought that in the first half we were rolling,” senior guard Dan Buenning said. “[Stocco] was throwing the ball and the receivers were making great plays.”
Stocco spread the ball around to nine different receivers and had two completions of more than 40 yards, including a 42-yard pass to Williams down the UW sideline which set up a one-yard touchdown run for Davis with 1:08 left in the first quarter. Davis finished the day with 124 yards on 31 carries and two touchdowns. The Gophers were able to somewhat limit Davis, putting both safeties in the box and making the senior work for every yard. With Minnesota putting such an emphasis on stopping Davis, Stocco was free to make throws into single coverage with near-regularity.
“I think he really took a jump today,” Davis said of Stocco. “He was making plays with his arm. He was throwing the ball well. He was very decisive. He was running the ball. He was buying himself time in the pocket — it was exciting to watch him play today.”
Wisconsin rode Davis’ back and a couple of Stocco completions to its fourth touchdown of the game on the opening possession of the second half. Trailing 28-0, the Gophers were forced to abandon the running game, and sophomore quarterback Bryan Cupito was inconsistent and largely ineffective in lifting his team from the deficit it faced. Minnesota was able to convert just 2 of 10 third downs the entire game.
“That’s really been the history of us the last couple weeks,” Minnesota head coach Glen Mason said of his team — which has lost four of its last five games. “We do a very good job on first and second down, we get what is normally a pretty hard down to convert offensively and we don’t seem to do that effectively at all. I’ve been saying this off and on for the last couple weeks, I guess maybe because you’re for a loss of what to say.”
The Badgers’ lead was increased to 31 points when senior kicker Mike Allen split a 41- yard field goal between the uprights with six minutes remaining in the first half. Allen missed on his two other tries, including a 38-yarder with 1:21 remaining in the second half and a 48-yarder in the third.
Cupito was able to breathe some life into the Gopher attack late in the first half by connecting on long passes with receivers Ernie Wheelright and Paris Hamilton before finding Wheelright again, this time in the end zone, for a 10-yard touchdown pass. The reception cut the Wisconsin lead to 31-7 heading into halftime.
Minnesota orchestrated a seven-play, 73-yard drive coming out of the locker room to start the third quarter behind a couple of key receptions from the Minnesota receiving corps. Speedy Gopher tailback Laurence Maroney sprinted 31 yards down the left sideline and into the end zone, making the score 31-14 with 12:57 remaining in the quarter. Maroney carried the ball just eight times for 57 yards. His teammate Marion Barber was limited to just 34 yards on seven carries.
“I didn’t get nervous,” Davis said of the Gophers' comeback attempt. “Coach always says if they get the momentum, just grab it back. I was confident if they got the momentum, we’d get it back.”
Stocco took the reigns of the offense following the Gophers’ second touchdown and put together the Badgers’ most impressive drive of the game. The sophomore signal-caller scrambled 16 yards on third-and-long from the Wisconsin 19-yard-line to keep the drive going, and Matt Bernstein moved the chains on fourth-and-one from the Minnesota 29 as the Badgers continued to grind away on the Gophers. Stocco took the ball into the end zone on a naked bootleg to give the Badgers a 38-14 lead with 5:18 remaining in the third quarter. The Badger defense would close the door on the Gophers, and Wisconsin would walk away with the coveted Paul Bunyan Axe after relinquishing the trophy last season.
“I don’t think we would’ve wanted it any other way,” Davis said of ending Wisconsin’s home season with a win over rival Minnesota and taking back the axe. “It’s something that we take a lot of pride in here. That case was empty for a whole year and that’s not something we wanted to have on our minds as we walked out of here.”