After Saturday’s game, Wisconsin has now lost to Minnesota in back-to-back years. That’s the first time that this would happen in almost 30 years!
Wisconsin came into Saturday’s game with a 6-6 overall record (4-5 in the Big 10) against the Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4 overall, 5-4 Big 10). They were looking to reclaim the Paul Bunyan Axe after losing to Minnesota in 2021 as well. The Badgers-Gophers annual game is the longest-running rivalry in college football.
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Not only does the winning team get to bring home the axe, but they also get bragging rights. Both colleges are big rivals, so winning this game at the end of the season is a big deal.
Unfortunately, the game did not go the way the Badgers would’ve hoped. Minnesota’s backup quarterback (let me repeat that: backup!) Athan Kaliakmanis lead the Gophers to a 23-16 win at Camp Randall Stadium.
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Wisconsin won the coin toss and chose to take the ball. This decision paid off for HC Jim Leonhard because QB Graham Mertz and RB Chez Mellusi guided the offense down the field. The Badgers’ offense had an 11-play drive that eventually stalled out in the red zone. Wisconsin’s kicker, Nate Van Zelst, successfully kicked a 40-yard field goal, giving Wisconsin an early 3-0 lead.
The Gophers responded with a 10-drive play. Kaliakmanis dominated over Wisconsin’s defense with 41 yards passing and a 23-yard run. The freshman quarterback threw a six-yard touchdown to WR Daniel Jackson, giving Minnesota a 7-3 lead with a little over three minutes left in the first quarter.
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Minnesota’s defense was quick to defeat the Badgers’ offense and turn possession back over to the Gophers. Kaliakmanis threw a big 42-yard completion to WR Dylan Wright to set the Gophers up in scoring position. Wisconsin’s defense came up with a big fourth-down stop at the 11-yard line on fourth-and-one.
Mertz drove 65 yards downfield and got the Badgers to fourth-and-one. Leonhard chose to turn to Van Zelst, who kicked his second field goal of the game. Minnesota was now ahead 7-6 halfway through the second quarter.
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The next successful drive was for Minnesota. Wisconsin’s defense came up with a third-down stop inside the 10-yard line, which forced Minnesota to kick a field goal. The Gophers led 10-6 at halftime.
At the start of the third quarter, Wisconsin’s defense came up with another third-down stop, bringing up fourth-and-two at the 27-yard line. Minnesota K Matthew Trickett successfully kicked a 50-yard field goal to give the Gophers a seven-point lead.
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The Badgers responded with a field goal of their own. Mertz connected with WRs Chimere Dike and Dean Engram but then missed a wide-open route by TE Jack Eschenbach in the red zone. Van Zelst scored his third field goal at the 36-yard line to make the score 13-9. Van Zelst has been a major player for the Badgers this season, as he has constantly continued to help the Badgers put points up on the board.
The Badgers got the ball back with six minutes left in the third quarter after Wisconsin’s defense stopped the Gophers on a three-and-out. Mertz connected with Dike and RB Isaac Guerendo to get the Badgers down the field. Dike completed a nine-yard reverse run to give Wisconsin a 16-13 lead. There was hope for the Badgers!
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Minnesota put themselves in perfect scoring position on the next scoring drive, thanks to a 34-yard reception by Jackson on the sideline. Wisconsin’s defense held the Gophers to just a field goal. The field goal tied the game with just under eight minutes left in the game.
The Badgers could not get a first down, which led to a punt. Minnesota responded with a six-play, 71-yard touchdown drive.
Kaliakmanis found Jackson again for a 16-yard gain on play action. He would then hit WR Le’Meke Brockington in stride for a 45-yard touchdown on a shallow post route. Brockington outraced the entire Wisconsin defense for a 23-16 Minnesota lead with 3:40 remaining in the game.
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Mertz decided to throw a deep pass to Dike on a third down. What should have been an easy pass that would’ve given the Badgers a first down instead got intercepted. Minnesota’s defense returned it for 20 yards, moving the Gophers into Wisconsin territory.
Wisconsin made a big defensive stop. However, they had to turn to backup QB Chase Wolf for the first time this season due to a Mertz injury.
Wolf got the Badgers down to the five-yard line. However, four straight penalties would push the Badgers back to the 30-yard line. Right when it mattered most, the Badgers failed to reach the end zone. Minnesota secured the 23-16 win. A brutal loss for the Badgers as they faced penalty after penalty.
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It was interesting to see a different quarterback take Mertz’s place after his mediocre season. The loss was an unfortunate end to an unfortunate 50-50 season for the Badgers, but there are positives with every negative. The sad performance the Badgers put on this season was amidst many changes. Coaching and roster changes were aplenty, as were injuries and having to replace those players. This season was not what a usual Badger football season looked like. That means that there is room to grow and improve for next season.
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The Badgers are eliminated from potentially going to the Big Ten Championship. Now, they wait to see what bowl game they will attend.
One last and final change of the season for the Badgers: Luke Fickell will take over as UW’s head football coach. More on that soon.
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