Gophers reclaim Paul Bunyan's Axe with 23-13 win over No. 16 Wisconsin

Paul Bunyan’s Axe is staying in Minnesota, and the state will be doing plenty of celebrating with the trophy for the next year.

The University of Minnesota football team beat No. 16-ranked Wisconsin 23-13 on Saturday in front of nearly 50,000 fans at Huntington Bank Stadium. The Gophers beat the Badgers for the first time since 2018, and for the first time at home since 2003. Wisconsin came in having won 16 of the last 17 meetings between the two rivals.

With the Gophers in victory formation and running out the clock, it was seniors Ko Kieft, Esezi Otomewo and Coney Durr who were first to the Axe to celebrate on Senior Day.

"Since freshman year that’s something I’ve wanted to do. Especially being able to do it at home in front of our fans, it means the world to me," rush end and Minnesota native Boye Mafe said.

As the Gophers ran the clock out, fans stormed the field to celebrate with the team just like they did after beating Penn State during the historic 2019 season. Only this time, it was that much better with the Axe. The Gophers football production team also played "Jump Around" during the celebration, a staple at Camp Randall Stadium before the fourth quarter of Badgers’ games.

"Yeah that was fun," linebacker Jack Gibbens said.

"Pretty elite. Being able to do it here in front of our fans, it definitely means a lot. Just thankful to be a part of this team, be a part of this program and be a part of this state that cherishes playing in games like this.," quarterback Tanner Morgan said.

Kicker Matthew Trickett, who made three field goals and both of his extra points, celebrated with fans on the field after the game by "Rowing the Boat."

"Stuff like that man, the field being stormed, fans going crazy. I think I took like 300 pictures tonight. Just things like that, that’s why you do this," receiver Chris Autman-Bell said. "That’s why you play football, that’s why you come here to Minnesota. I’m hyped right now."

PJ Fleck joked after the game that when he was hired in 2017, he had a fan tell him all he had to do was beat Wisconsin, and he could be the Gophers’ coach forever. He could go 1-11 in a season, as long as that one was against the Badgers. Fleck is now 2-3 against Wisconsin.

"When I first took the job here, this is what we wanted to be able to do when we got here," Fleck said. "I said we need to make you the athletic director."

The Gophers put together the perfect formula to beat the Badgers on Saturday. Sell out to freshman sensation and running back Braelon Allen, make Graham Mertz win the game for Wisconsin and make enough big plays on offense to win the game.

Allen, who ran for 228 yards and three touchdowns two weeks ago against Nebraska, came in with seven straight 100-yard rushing games. Allen had 17 carries for 47 yards Saturday. His longest run went for 14 yards.

"Hit ‘em low, hit ’em low, hit 'em low and swarm to the ball. That back is one of the best backs in the country. You’re going to be watching him on Sundays in a few years," Fleck said.

"He was kind of on a crazy run. Definitely something that you’ve got to let your pride kick in a little bit when a team is going to come in and you know they want to establish the run," Gibbens said. "Felt good to step up to the plate, take on that challenge and have some success."

The Gophers limited Wisconsin to 233 total yards, 4-of-14 on third downs and just 62 rushing yards. Mertz finished 21-of-38 for 171 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

After exchanging field goals early, the Badgers got the first big score as Morgan had a pass tipped, intercepted and returned 25 yards for a touchdown by Scott Nelson. Wisconsin led 10-3 in the second quarter.

The Gophers trailed 10-6 to start the third quarter when the game turned. Justin Walley intercepted Mertz, giving the Gophers the ball at the Wisconsin 28-yard line. Morgan hit Brevyn Spann-Ford for 26 yards to the 2-yard line, and Ky Thomas ran it in to give the Gophers a 13-10 lead.

The Badgers tied it back up with a field goal before Morgan led Minnesota on the eventual game-winning drive. He hit Dylan Wright for 27 yards, then drew a pass interference penalty on another deep throw to Wright. Two plays later, Morgan hit Autman-Bell for a 27-yard touchdown to give the Gophers a 20-13 lead with 1:56 left in the third quarter.

Morgan finished the day 11-of-16 for 199 yards, a touchdown and bounced back from the early turnover.

"That’s Tanner, that’s what he does. Tanner never lets anything get to him," Autman-Bell said.

Wisconsin came in with the top rushing defense in the Big Ten, allowing less than 65 yards per game. Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving combined for 30 carries, 94 yards and one score.

Trickett added a 36-yard field goal to give the Gophers a 23-13 lead with 6:08 to play, and it was more than enough with Minnesota’s defense shutting down the Wisconsin run game.

The Gophers had to keep the focus on Wisconsin this week, and taking back the Axe. They were eliminated from Big Ten West title contention after Nebraska lost to Iowa on Friday. Now, the Hawkeyes will face Michigan for the Big Ten title after the Wolverines beat Ohio State to win the Big Ten East.

Minnesota entered the day seven-point underdogs, and the entire ESPN College GameDay crew picked Wisconsin to win the game. Fleck gets a win over a rival, and an early birthday present. His message to the team Friday night was the same as it's been all week: This is about the Axe.

"It was fun winning it in Camp Randall, it was even better winning it here at home here at Huntington Bank Stadium. The whole mission of the week was to get the Axe. If it came with something, great. If it didn’t, great. We wanted to get the Axe," Fleck said. "This is a really special moment. I’m just really proud of their courage to truly zone into that when nobody thought we would win."

A rivalry win in front of a packed house to end the season 8-4, with a bowl game to come. Most importantly, the Axe is staying in Minnesota.

"Playing in games like that is the reason I wanted to come here. Just to play in historic games like that, rivalry games in front of big crowds and hostile environments, that’s what you dream about doing when you’re a little kid," Gibbens said.