How The Gophers Won The Axe

How The Gophers Won the Axe
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It’s been a good Thanksgiving week in the Twin Cities. On Wednesday, injured running back Mohamed Ibrahim announced that he’ll return to school next year instead of entering the NFL Draft. And on Saturday, Minnesota beat Wisconsin 23-13 to take the coveted Paul Bunyan’s Axe Trophy. Here’s how the Gophers won the Axe:

Passing Game Clicking

With the entire off-season to discuss Minnesota’s embarrassment of riches at running back, let’s focus on Saturday’s game. The Badgers clearly came into this game focused on stopping the run. They had more success than either of the Gophers’ last two opponents, keeping them under 100 yards on the ground, and without a 100-yard rusher, for just the second time this season. The main difference was that the passing game clicked. Tanner Morgan threw a pick-six on the Gophers’ second possession, but finished 11 of 16 for 199 yards and a touchdown. It’s easy to forget, with the success of the run game, just how many talented receivers this team has. Six different players had at least one catch, and Morgan threw more deep passes than he has in weeks. Another big difference on Saturday was kicker Matthew Trickett. He hit field goals from 28, 31, and 36 yards, and made two extra points to cap off an up-and-down season.

Finally, on the topic of offense, Gopher fans have been spoiled for the last five years with the quality of offensive line play the team has had. All five are seniors, and Fox’s Tim Brando said during the game that he expects all five starters to be NFL draft picks.

Another Big Defensive Effort

As was the case a week ago, the defense contributed mightily in the victory. Boye Mafe made some big plays coming off the edge, including a sack that was, unfortunately, negated by a penalty. Freshman Justin Walley continues to impress in the backfield, coming up with his first career interception. The Badgers managed only 62 yards on the ground, despite averaging 229 coming into the game. Freshman standout Braelon Allen had rushed for at least 100 yards in the team’s last seven games; Minnesota held him to 47. Their effort against the run was a huge part of how the Gophers won the Axe.

Little Miscues Add Up

For the Badgers, small but numerous mistakes were their downfall. On the first snap of the game, safety Collin Wilder was ejected for targeting on Chris Autman-Bell. On two separate occasions, including one in the fourth quarter, Graham Mertz threw the ball to a receiver who was clearly expecting it on his other side. There were a couple of costly drops, and a missed field goal. Then there was this bizarre sequence with 4:26 remaining and Minnesota up by 10:

  • 4th and 1 at their own 21, Badgers appear ready to punt
  • A false start makes it 4th and 6
  • Coach Paul Chryst calls timeout
  • Badgers decide to go for it and get the first down

Imagine if they don’t convert, and Minnesota gets the ball at the Badgers’ 16-yard line? And why decide to go for it (the right decision, by the way), but only AFTER a penalty backs you up another five yards? Just a strange set of decisions all around.

New Year’s Day Bowl Game?

The Fox commentary team seemed to think so. That would be a nice consolation prize for the Gophers after missing out on the Big Ten Championship (thanks for nothing, Nebraska). Official invitations won’t be issued until December 5th, but our Kevin McGuffey will have his bowl projections after the newest rankings come out on Tuesday. (Here are last week’s, if you missed them: https://lastwordonsports.com/collegefootball/2021/11/23/lwos-week-12-bowl-projections/) Don’t forget to check back and see where he thinks the Gophers will be heading!

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