MINNEAPOLIS — The Badger football team could not have asked for a wilder finish Saturday.
No. 23 Wisconsin was down 34-24 with three minutes remaining but, thanks to a 71-yard drive and an improbable blocked punt that was recovered for a touchdown, the Badgers came out with a 38-34 win over No. 22 Minnesota and retained possession of the coveted Paul Bunyan Axe.
“Just when you think you’ve seen about everything, you haven’t,” Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said.
With three minutes remaining, Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco orchestrated a quick 71-yard drive capped by a 21-yard touchdown pass to receiver Brandon Williams. But that still left the Badgers down 34-31. The Badger defense, which gave up 510 yards of total offense Saturday, held Minnesota to nine yards on the next drive, forcing the Gophers to punt.
With 38 seconds remaining, Minnesota punter Justin Kucek fumbled the punt snap and scrambled to his right, attempting to punt on the run. True freshman Jonathan Casillas blocked the punt, which bounced into the end zone, where Ben Strickland recovered it for a touchdown. That blocked punt and subsequent touchdown gave Wisconsin (6-1 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) a very unlikely – and very lucky – finish to what should have been a win for the Gophers (5-2, 2-2).
On the Metrodome turf after the game, did the Badgers feel relief? Elation? Shock?
“(It was) all of that in one,” linebacker Dontez Sanders said. “When the game ends like that, it’s all those words tied in one.”
“It’s incredible and unpredictable and unfathomable as they come,” co-offensive coordinator Brian White said. “But it’s a great example of why you have to keep playing until the last tackle.”
Wisconsin’s late-game comeback was in response to Minnesota’s steady offensive production, which featured tailbacks Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell.
Maroney, a Heisman Trophy candidate, proved his worth, rushing for 258 yards and a touchdown. That includes a 93-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, which left Sanders, safety Joe Stellmacher and corner Allen Langford haplessly chasing.
“This week, I want to say our defense played bad,” Sanders said. “We went out there, we had stops but we were giving up big plays.”
Russell, Maroney’s backup, had 139 rushing yards and two touchdowns, looking unstoppable at times.
“Those were … three phenomenal tailbacks playing in that game,” White said. “Those are three great ones out there playing. Laurence Maroney, wow, what a special player he is. Gary Russell is a physical back and (Wisconsin tailback) Brian (Calhoun) was superb today.”
Another backup, UM quarterback Tony Mortensen, completed seven of 13 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown. The Gophers usual starting signal caller, Bryan Cupito, watched from the sidelines after he injured both of his shoulders last week in Minnesota’s 23-20 upset win over Michigan. Cupito, Gopher coach Glen Mason said, is expected to return against Ohio State Oct. 29, Minnesota’s next outing.
“Mortensen did a real fine job,” Mason said. “Not only was it his first start, but it was against one of our biggest rivals. I thought he did enough to help us to win the game and that’s all we asked from him. Even though Cupito was cleared to play by our staff, I made the decision on Tuesday to go with Mortensen.”
Wisconsin’s defense once again took a drubbing and gave up more than 300 yards rushing and 500 yards of total offense for the second straight week. Saturday, the defense allowed 411 rushing yards. Injuries to defensive end Joe Monty (knee) and defensive tackle Jason Chapman (ankle) only added salt to the wounds.
“We gave up a lot of yards, but we got character,” Stellmacher said. “We’re never going to quit. All 11 guys out there and all the subs. Our d-line was depleted. All those guys, we were just giving it our all. I can’t say enough about never giving up.”
But while Wisconsin’s defense was lacking, the Badgers’ offense picked up the slack.
Calhoun was held to 14 rushing yards on seven carries at halftime but the offense, White said, got Calhoun into a rhythm in the second half.
“I just told him to just keep playing, be persistent,” White said, on a halftime conversation he had with Calhoun. “Keep going to your landmarks, don’t panic, we want to get you into a rhythm. We haven’t been able to get you in a rhythm. Whether it be you got a first down, he makes a nice run, we get a holding penalty. And then all of a sudden you get behind the chains and you throw it. We couldn’t get him consecutive runs in the first half but we did in the second half.”
Calhoun finished with 110 yards on 23 carries and three touchdowns, one each in the first, third and fourth quarters.
“I thought he played an outstanding game,” White said.
Stocco, who is a native of nearby Richfield, Minn., was 15-for-26 for 235 yards and a touchdown. The win over Wisconsin’s biggest rival meant that much more, he said, because he comes from the area.
Wisconsin and Minnesota were tied 10-10 at halftime but Minnesota broke away early in the third quarter with Maroney’s 93-yard touchdown run. A 49-yard field goal from Gopher kicker Jason Giannini put Minnesota up 20-10. From there, the Badgers and Gophers traded scores, with Minnesota scoring on a 1-yard run by Russell with 3:27 left in the fourth quarter to take a 34-24 lead.
“Our guys on offense, we all got together and said, ‘look, we’ve got to score points and for us to win this game, we’re going to score points as fast as possible,” Calhoun said.
Minnesota could have had one last chance with 30 seconds remaining, but kick returner Jakari Wallace fumbled and true freshman linebacker DeAndre Levy recovered at the Gopher 17.