MINNEAPOLIS - History has proven that, over the past six years, nothing comes easy for the Badgers when they travel to the Metrodome.
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema often says that the Badgers aren’t the sexiest team in the nation, but they find ways to win football games.
The chaos Wisconsin was involved in on Saturday would be a prime example of winning ugly.
The only problem was that freshmen Zach Brown looked so pretty during it.
A week after rushing for a career-high 108 yards against Michigan, Brown took advantage of the third worst rushing defense in the country by racking up 250 yards and two scores, helping Wisconsin avoid a huge upset, pulling away late to win 41-34.
With the Wisconsin offense sputtering in the first half, managing to score only 10 points against the conference’s worst scoring defense (giving up 36.3 points per game), Brown started to change the momentum right after intermission.
After a 56-yard punt return by David Gilreath (part of his 226 return yards in the game) put the Badgers inside the red zone, Brown danced his way outside, twisting and turning 16 yards until he crossed the goal line, giving the Badgers their first lead of the game.
It was from that point on that the floodgates opened.
Wisconsin scored on its next three possessions – a Taylor Mehlhaff 20-yard field goal, a Bill Rentmeester one-yard run and a 16-yard Travis Beckum touchdown - to put the Badgers, at the time, comfortably ahead 34-20 with 10:40 left in the game.
As recent history proves, no lead is safe in the Metrodome.
After Beckum’s touchdown, Minnesota drove down the field 79 yards in just 10 plays, as Minnesota QB Adam Weber connected with Eric Decker to cut the lead back to seven.
For the second straight trip, however, a Minnesota punt miscue went the Badgers’ way.
With Wisconsin going three-and-out and the Minnesota crowd reaching its peak noise level, senior Ken DeBauche delivered his best punt of the afternoon; sailing the ball over Minnesota returner Harold Howell’s head. Trying to make a basket catch, Howell fumbled the football and Wisconsin’s Steve Johnson pounded on the live football, giving the Badgers first-and-ten at the Minnesota 15.
“That was a huge momentum changer for us,” Bielema said.
Two plays later, Brown punched in his second rushing touchdown of the afternoon, giving the Badgers their second 14-point lead of the quarter.
“I feel like I can produce right now and that I am comfortable with my running,” Brown said. “(The confidence) comes with playing in games. You can’t get better unless you play in games. I knew that I would have some good games (at Wisconsin), but I didn’t expect this, this soon.”
The Badgers didn’t have time to get comfortable, as Minnesota cut into the Badgers lead three plays later when wide receiver Ralph Spry went 71 yards off a tipped pass to reignite the crowd and erase the punt miscue.
“Whenever we come up here, we’ve got to make it a crazy game,” Bielema said.
With 4:37 left on the clock, the second best time of possession offense in the nation went to work. Wisconsin proceeded to milk three minutes and 12 seconds off the clock with the key play being Bielema having the Badgers try to move the chains on fourth-and-one from the 44. The result was a Tyler Donovan two-yard rush to get the first down.
“We were going to be aggressive,” Bielema said. “I felt that where we were defensively, we needed to make a statement to our team and hopefully, that little decision right there isn’t just for that play. That’s a mentality that we have for the future of my program.”
With Minnesota needing to make something happen and barely over a minute to do it, Minnesota QB Adam Weber forced a pass into coverage, which was picked off by Ben Strickland – the hero two years ago in Minneapolis – to seal Wisconsin’s ninth win of the season.
“We knew it was going to be tough, especially after the first half,” Strickland said. “It’s a good way to go out and finish in the Metrodome. We got fortunate and it’s a great feeling to have.”
Entering the game as a 14-point favorite, Wisconsin was able to have the kind of offensive success many predicted, racking up 325 rushing yards and 443 total yards against the worst defenses in the conference.
What was the shock, however, was how well the Gophers moved the football against a Badger defense that had been seemingly invincible since being blown out against Penn State.
After giving up 195 first-half yards, Minnesota compiled 306 yards in the second half for a game total of 501 yards.
“Those seniors have gone to bowl games every year they have been here,” Bielema said. “They are accustomed to winning and we knew they were going to come out here guns blazing and play good football.”
Although it wasn’t sexy or pretty, Wisconsin maintains possession of the axe for a fourth consecutive year.
“We had to find a way to persevere through that,” Bielema said. “I knew that our guys weren’t going to be denied … We scored early and we were able to get some key plays to get the victory. As a result, we kept Paul Bunyan’s axe.”