MINNEAPOLIS - For the first time in 28 years, Paul Bunyan’s Axe is staying in Minnesota for two straight years.
The University of Minnesota football team held off Wisconsin 23-16 on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium to finish the 2022 season 8-4. For the first time since 1993-94, the rivalry trophy is staying in Minneapolis for consecutive seasons.
That’s after a devastating 13-10 home loss to Iowa last week on Senior Day at Huntington Bank Stadium eliminated the Gophers from Big Ten West title contention. Pudue is headed to Indianapolis after their win over Indiana on Saturday. They’ll face Michigan, who won at Ohio State. For the Gophers, Saturday was all about response in what PJ Fleck called his toughest loss as Minnesota’s head coach.
"I know our Plan A of winning the West necessarily didn’t happen, but they call it the Wild, Wild West for a reason. Everybody had their opportunities, we got a little unlucky here and there but we showed incredible growth tonight," Fleck said after the win. "To watch them respond the way they did, incredible. I’m so proud of them. That was a huge win for us, just a huge win."
Players took their turn celebrating with the Axe on the field after the game. When the celebration got to the locker room, they lit up victory cigars. The Gophers have now beaten the Badgers three out of the last five years.
"A Cuban cigar, the Cuban can smoke it," linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. "The Axe is back home where it belongs, and it’s going to stay there for a long time."
The Gophers have relied heavily on a ground-and-pound rushing attack, led by Mo Ibrahim, most of the season. Only the service academies, New Mexico State and New Mexico had passed more than Minnesota. That changed Saturday, as the Gophers went to the air through redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis, making his fourth career start with Tanner Morgan unable to play.
Kalikamanis finished 19-of-29 passing for 319 yards and two touchdowns. The second was the game-winner, a 45-yard strike to Lemeke Brockington in stride to give the Gophers a 23-16 lead with 3:40 to play. Last week, Kaliakmanis tried to hit Brockington on a pass that was broken up, intercepted and the Hawkeyes turned it into the game-winning field goal.
"As a team, the Iowa loss hurt a lot. I knew I had to play better to be able to come in and win this game. Just as a team, I knew I had to play better. I knew I couldn’t play like I did with Iowa. I had to respond and play a lot better," Kaliakmanis said. "I wanted to do everything in my power to make sure we went out with a win tonight. I have no words right now, I’m just so happy for this team and for the seniors."
The Gophers piled up 416 total yards, and Kaliakmanis averaged 16.8 yards per completion.
"Our quarterback played really special. He did some things that… Wow, like 500-level things that he’s processed in his mind, talked with Kirk about it and was able to do it," Fleck said.
They needed him, after Wisconsin scored 10 straight points to take a 16-13 lead with 3:14 left in the third quarter. The Badgers got the go-ahead score on a 9-yard reverse from Chimere Dike, on a play where Graham Mertz appeared to hold Thomas Rush.
The Gophers hadn’t unleashed a passing game like that since opening the Big Ten season with a 34-7 win at Michigan State. Dylan Wright had the best game of his career, with five catches for 86 yards. Brevyn Spann-Ford had a team-high seven catches for 94 yards. Daniel Jackson had five catches for 86 yards, and a first quarter touchdown.
Brockington had the biggest catch of his young career, helping the Gophers beat their biggest rivals.
"Nothing but green grass, nothing but green grass. Seeing green grass and hitting a good angle. I just want to show up for my brothers," Brockington said.
"You’ve got to have a game like that to say, aha. That’s an aha play, and that takes you into the next phase. That makes all of your work trustworthy because you now have proof," Fleck said. "Now you’ve got proof that you can do it in a huge game, under the lights in high-pressure situations."
The game was full of tense moments late. Justin Walley appeared to seal it late with an interception of Graham Mertz. Fleck tried to make it a two-score game, but Matthew Trickett’s 48-yard attempt with 1:48 to play clanked off the right upright.
The Badgers drove down to the Minnesota 5-yard line after Walley was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, then committed four penalties to go back to the 30-yard line. With Mertz out injured, Chase Wolf’s pass on 4th-and-goal from the 25 sailed out of the end zone, and the Gophers could celebrate.
Saturday's win takes some of the sting off the Iowa loss, though Fleck remains 0-6 against Kirk Ferentz. The Gophers needed to beat Iowa and Wisconsin to be in the Big Ten West conversation Saturday. It turned out moot, with Purdue winning its way to Indianapolis.
"I still remember people, Heather and I every time they’d see us, just beat Wisconsin and you can stay forever. Just beat Wisconsin and you can stay forever," Fleck said. "Well we’ve beaten Wisconsin twice and you all wanted me fired last week. That’s how that goes."
Minnesota won’t know its bowl destination until after the conference championship games next weekend. But the Gophers could win nine games for the third time in four seasons, something that hasn’t been done in more than 100 years.