MINNEAPOLIS — Moments after hoisting Paul Bunyan’s Axe into the air, the University of Wisconsin football team made its way triumphantly down the Metrodome corridor to its locker room.
“Do you believe?” said tight end Jason Pociask, as he walked down the hallway. “Do you believe?”
After pulling out an unfathomable 38-34 win here Saturday, the look on the Badgers’ faces was one of disbelief and elation.
“I can’t really describe (it),” safety Joe Stellmacher said. “I’m still in awe right now, still in shock at the game.”
Minnesota had this game won.
It certainly looked that way when the Gophers went ahead 34-24 with three minutes, 27 seconds left to play.
The game spun on its head when Ben Strickland cradled Jonathan Casillas’ blocked punt in the end zone with just 30 seconds left, capping an astounding turn of events that conspired to give the Badgers the lead.
With 38 seconds on the clock UM held a 34-31 edge and lined up to punt on fourth-and-one from its 17-yard line. The snap to punter Justin Kucek was a little to his right, and the ball slipped through his hands. Kucek quickly picked it up, scrambled to his right and tried to punt the ball rugby style.
Casillas, however, blocked it cleanly, sending the ball bounding toward the end zone. Casillas then alertly focused on keeping the ball from going out of the end zone. He knew that a safety did the Badgers little good. “As soon as I blocked I it, I’m like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get this, we got to get it,’” said Casillas, a true freshman backup linebacker.
“It was bouncing so long because I tried to not jump on it,” Casillas said. “Because every time somebody jumps on the ball it skirts out and shoots past the end zone.”
Casillas did his job, keeping the ball in play about three yards from the back of the end zone, where Strickland made the recovery.
“(Casillas) kept the ball in bounds and he cradled it too,” Strickland said. “It was just kind of on his hip so I just kind of made sure it was secured.”
For Kucek’s first three punts Saturday, the Badgers set up a return. But UW called a full block this time.
“We were trying to put stress on the center and I’m sure that because of that he yanked the ball a little bit,” head coach Barry Alvarez said.
Casillas had come close to blocking several punts this season, especially in non-conference wins over Bowling Green and Temple. This time he got it.
“It feels so great,” Casillas said. “Just everybody carrying the axe around the field. The game changed around in 20 seconds. I can’t explain the experience.”
Minnesota fans can only scratch their heads. The Gophers could have taken a safety rather than punting, taking time off the clock and giving UM a free kick from its 20.
The disincentive is that a safety would have given UW the ball with good field position, needing only a field goal to win. If it had been a clean punt, the Badgers would have needed a field goal to force overtime. Had the Badgers not blocked the punt, dangerous return man Brandon Williams was waiting.
The special teams dramatics would not have been possible without Williams’ 21-yard touchdown reception, which culminated a 7-play, 71-yard drive and brought UW within 34-31.
Just after Williams caught the ball, UM’s Dominic Jones grasped his facemask and was assessed a personal foul. The penalty allowed UW to kickoff from the 50 instead of the 35.
Ken DeBauche’s ensuing onside kick bounced off UM’s Trumaine Banks and ricocheted like a rocket off Zach Hampton’s knee, catapulting down field. UM tailback Laurence Maroney, the one deep man, tracked it down at the 8.
“(Zach) said it was coming right at him, he was ready to get it and it hit off his knee,” Stellmacher said. “He said he couldn’t have lived with himself if we would have lost that game.”
UM took possession with 2:10 left to play. Two Maroney runs brought up third-and-three at the 15 and UW burned its last timeout with 1:19 left. A first down would have allowed the Gophers to run out the clock, but linebacker Mark Zalewski stopped Maroney a yard short.
“One thing you can’t take away from our kids is they’re all fighters,” defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. “We ask them to believe and they do.”