With everything in front of Wisconsin football, the Badgers fell flat in a disastrous second half that ultimately decided their fate. Holding onto a 10-6 lead at the break, the Badgers were outscored 17-3 in the second half as the Gophers took the Axe back.
The 23-13 loss gave Iowa an outright Big Ten West division title and sent the Hawkeyes to Indianapolis where they will face Michigan.
Saturday felt like deja vu to how Wisconsin’s season began. The journey of the season was a wild ride that dropped passengers off in the same place they started. The Badgers ended exactly how they began.
Wisconsin’s offense simply sputtered, as the Badgers failed to run the football effectively with Graham Mertz and the passing game unable to pickup the slack.
After seven straight wins, it was a shock to the system to see the Badgers revert back to who they were during the first few weeks of the season. What went wrong in the Twin Cities? Here are five reasons why Wisconsin won’t be traveling to Indianapolis:
The first play of the game
If an outsider asked who the leaders of Wisconsin’s team have been this season you could have given a variety of names, most of whom play on the defense. I would start with senior safety Collin Wilder, whose two interceptions against Nebraska helped propel the Badgers towards a key win just a week ago.
The first play from scrimmage turned out to be one that set the tone for the afternoon. Wilder was forced to watch the entirety of the game from the locker room after a controversial targeting call sent him packing. It was one of those plays where upon replay the contact confirmed the targeting, but the intent was clearly not there.
Hopefully college football is able to address and fix what has been a controversial rule all year long, but Wilder’s ejection sucked the life out of Wisconsin early in this one.
An inability to run the football
After seven weeks of dominance on the ground led to seven straight Wisconsin wins, the Badgers’ bread and butter didn’t travel with them to Minnesota.
The Badgers were of course without Chez Mellusi, whose leg injury at Rutgers ended his season. Freshman Braelon Allen had an unbelievable run over the past seven weeks, but was unable to replicate that same magic in the Twin Cities.
Wisconsin’s offensive line didn’t do them any favors, and the Badgers averaged just 2.8 yards per carry on 22 attempts. 62 rushing yards won’t win Wisconsin many football games.
The play-calling was baffling at times
Even with all the aforementioned issues on the ground, Wisconsin had multiple chances to win this football game. With a 10-6 lead midway through the second quarter, Wisconsin put together a drive into Minnesota territory aided by a Gophers pass interference penalty on third-and-long.
With 2nd-and-9 from the Gophers 35-yard line, the Badgers had a chance to go up by a touchdown or even two scores before the half. Instead, Wisconsin decided to pass the ball on two consecutive downs and punt from the Minnesota 35-yard line.
With the way Wisconsin’s defense was playing early, the punt wasn’t even the most head-scratching part of the sequence. The fact that the Badgers failed to pick up anything on two consecutive downs forced them into the 4th-and-9 situation in the first place.
There was essentially no creativity from Wisconsin, who lacked counters with their run game not flowing. In each Wisconsin loss this season, the Badgers either fell behind early or were stalled on the ground from the onset. When Wisconsin can’t run the football effectively, it feels like they have no other buttons to push.
If the end of the first half sequence wasn’t agonizing enough, the beginning of the fourth quarter went to a whole new level. Down 7, Wisconsin had the football at Minnesota’s 30-yard line. The decision? Three consecutive passes that resulted in three incompletions. The final dagger? A 48-yard field goal from Collin Larsh try that came up short.
The opening drive of the second half
Leading 10-6 heading into the halftime locker room, the opening Badger drive of the second half felt like a defining moment in the contest.
It ended with a Mertz interception at the Minnesota 28-yard line that would be unfair to place firmly on the shoulders of the Badger quarterback. Kendric Pryor, who struggled all afternoon, was unable to win a battle with Justin Walley. The Gophers would punch it in just two plays later to take a 13-10 lead.
The length of Minnesota’s drives
Two teams that pride themselves on winning time of possession met up on Saturday. Minnesota won the time of possession battle, albeit just barely, and ended up winning the game. The Gophers held the football for 30:10, but were able to extend drives on third down despite their early red zone struggles.
Wisconsin’s defense certainly didn’t have a bad day, as Scott Nelson scored 6 of Wisconsin’s 13 points on an interception return touchdown. It was, however, not the dominance that Badger fans have been accustomed to this season. The Gophers rallied behind their crowd, won on first down, and conversely forced Wisconsin into obvious passing situations.