MINNEAPOLIS - Gopher football coach P.J. Fleck made it very clear early in the week leading up to Saturday’s game against Wisconsin that the result, win or lose, would not define the season.
Minnesota entered its final regular season home game ranked No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Gophers had already won 10 games for the first time in 115 years, seven in the Big Ten for the first time ever. But with Paul Bunyan’s Axe as well as the Big Ten West Division title on the line, the Axe’s time in Minnesota was short-lived after a 38-17 loss to the Badgers in front of a sellout crowd of more than 53,000 at TCF Bank Stadium.
The day started early for Fleck, with a morning appearance on ESPN’s College GameDay. Thousands of Gopher fans filled Northrop Mall for the three-hour show, which ended with Desmond Howard, former Gophers legend Eric Decker and Lee Corso all picking the Gophers to beat the Badgers. Had that happened, Minnesota would’ve earned a trip to play Ohio State for the Big Ten Championship, and at worst, likely locked up a Rose Bowl bid.
Instead, they fall to 10-2 and await their bowl fate. It will very likely be on Jan. 1, 2020, something Gopher fans would’ve accepted with open arms when the season started. Yet Fleck and players left the field Saturday night disappointed, as the Axe is going back to Madison for the 21st time in 23 years.
“Nobody likes to lose, nobody wants to lose. We did not play well enough to win the Big Ten West today. Today, that doesn’t mean we’re not a good enough team to win the Big Ten West this year, we weren’t a good enough team to win the Big Ten West today, and that’s what we showed,” Fleck said.
It’s a process to build a program that can win consistently over several years, even decades. Sometimes you have to crawl and walk before you can run. Fleck pointed to Kirk Ferentz at Iowa and Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, who each have had their own successful runs with four 10-win seasons. This year marks Fleck’s first, and he hopes it’s just the start.
“So many people put so much into this game and they put so much into this game, and I want to make sure they understand because this isn’t just an end all be all. We’re doing everything we can to set a new standard and an expectation here of what Minnesota Golden Gopher football looks like,” Fleck said.
It couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. The Gophers just couldn’t make enough plays against the Badgers to finish. Minnesota got a 3-and-out on its first defensive series, and on Tanner Morgan’s second throw of the game, he hit Rashod Bateman for a 51-yard touchdown in stride on a post for the early 7-0 lead.
Bateman finished the day with six catches for 147 yards and the score, and broke Tyler Johnson’s single-season school record for receiving yards with 1,150. It was also his fifth 100-yard game this season.
Later in the first quarter with a 7-0 lead and the ball, the Gophers faced a 4th-and-2 at the Wisconsin 35 on a cold, windy, snowy and sleety day in Minneapolis. Rather than go for it, Fleck took the delay of game penalty and punted, pinning Wisconsin deep. It might have been a missed opportunity to deliver an early punch.
Wisconsin got its first score in the second quarter after the first of Morgan’s two turnovers on the day. He had a pass intended for Johnson deflected and intercepted. The Gopher defense held and limited the Badgers to a field goal.
After a slow start to the first half, Jonathan Taylor beat Carter Coughlin in coverage and got a perfect pass from Jack Coan for a 28-yard touchdown with 2:49 left in the first half. After the fast start, the Gophers trailed 10-7 at the break.
Any momentum the Gophers had slipped away early in the third quarter after Coan hit Quintez Cephus for a 47-yard touchdown, beating Thomas Barber in coverage to give the Badgers a 17-7 lead. The Gophers got a Michael Lantz field goal to get within 17-10, but the Badgers ran back the ensuing kickoff into Minnesota territory. Kedrick Pryor scored on a 26-yard run, giving the Badgers a 24-10 lead.
Needing an answer, the Gophers drove the ball down to the Wisconsin 4-yard line, but consecutive throws to Johnson were knocked away in tight coverage. They got zero points when they had to have seven.
The Badgers had another answer the help of a 70-yard screen pass to get into Gophers’ territory. Taylor then scored the first of his two rushing touchdowns from 11 yards out, giving Wisconsin a 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter. The game was effectively over.
Taylor’s second score of the day came from 1-yard out after Wisconsin recovered Morgan sack fumble. Taylor finished the day with 115 total yards and three touchdowns.
Morgan was sacked five times in the loss, faced pressure most of the day and finished 20-of-37 for 296 yards and two scores. He said after it stung watching the Badgers take back Paul Bunyan’s Axe. After taking the early 7-0 lead, the Gophers were outscored 38-3 before a late score from Johnson.
The 17 points the Gophers scored was their lowest total of the season. Other than losing at Iowa, they had scored at least 28 points in every game this season. They didn't make enough plays on the biggest stage of the season against their biggest rival with a spot in the Big Ten title game at stake.
“I know this team and I know how this team responds. It’s going to make us work that much harder. We’re just going to come back to work ready to fight and ready to get better, period,” Morgan said. That’s what this team will do and I can guarantee you that because these guys want to be their best every single day.”
The less than ideal conditions didn’t slow the Badgers, who won the line of scrimmage and piled up 453 total yards. Paul Chryst had Minnesota off-balance on both sides of the ball most of the game.
After the loss, the Gophers reflected on what a 10-win season means to them. It was historical, it hasn’t been done in 115 years. College GameDay had never been to Minnesota. That all changed Saturday.
“Things changed on a huge scale. College GameDay was here, all I did was hear stories about that before from other guys and different coaches and things like that. So I feel like from this year forward, everybody is going to know that Minnesota is a force to be reckoned with,” senior defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere said.
It was the final regular season game at TCF Bank Stadium for 13 seniors. Morgan credited the team’s 10-2 season and the program’s historic leap to them.
“Those guys mean the world to this program because they’ve set it up for success in the future of being a championship program or winning championships. That’s what this program is going to do in the future,” Morgan said. “I love those guys to death and we wouldn’t be here without them, period.”
They’re not done yet. The Gophers will learn their bowl game next weekend.