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Jim Polzin: Wisconsin football's failure against rival Minnesota 'a disgrace to the program'

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polzin jump photo 11-27

Minnesota fans reach up toward Paul Bunyan's Axe after the game. 

MINNEAPOLIS — Scott Nelson was one of the final members of the University of Wisconsin football team to leave the field Saturday evening. There was mayhem all around the senior safety by that point, Minnesota students rushing the field from all directions and sprinting to get as close as they could to the prize the Golden Gophers just had won.

There was no good reason for Nelson to turn his head and take in the scene as he exited. But he did anyway because, well, this was his final moment in a rivalry that dates to 1890 and he had to mark it somehow. The sight was predictably painful for Nelson — the Badgers’ biggest rival parading around with Paul Bunyan’s Axe — so he shifted his focus back to the tunnel that would lead him to the visiting locker room at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Nelson disappeared into blackness, just as No. 18 UW’s hopes and dreams had done minutes earlier when the reality of a 23-13 loss to Minnesota had hit home for a group that entered the day with so much on the line.

UW’s seven-game winning streak went up in smoke and with it a chance to play for a Big Ten Conference championship next week in Indianapolis. That the ride ended at the hands of the Gophers, who had lost 16 of the previous 17 meetings with the Badgers, made it an even more difficult pill to swallow.

“It’s honestly the worst feeling in the world,” UW senior cornerback Caesar Williams said. “It just feels like a disgrace to the program for us to lose the Axe.”

Afterward, there was sadness in Badgers coach Paul Chryst’s voice and, if you looked closely, wetness in senior linebacker Jack Sanborn’s eyes. Senior cornerback Faion Hicks looked shell-shocked while waiting for his postgame media session to begin and senior tight end Jake Ferguson apparently had reached his pain threshold because he skipped out on a session with reporters after wrapping up a brief interview with the UW radio postgame show.

“Guys are hurting,” senior outside linebacker Noah Burks said. “We all feel pain because obviously we weren’t able to go and accomplish what we wanted to do this game.”

Or this season, for that matter. Remember three months ago when a senior-laden squad entered the season with massive goals after a disappointing 2020 campaign? Ferguson had spoken of a desire to “do something we’ve never done” and Sanborn talked about how these Badgers wanted to “make history at Wisconsin.” Another senior, defensive end Matt Henningsen, admitted how annoying it was to look at the façade on the east side of Camp Randall Stadium every day and see that the program’s last Big Ten championship came in 2012.

There was a theme of unfinished business and the Badgers still have a bunch of unchecked items on their list of goals 12 games later.

No College Football Playoff or Big Ten title, but worse yet no division title and, for the next 12 months, an empty spot where the Axe usually rests in the team’s trophy case.

“The biggest thing is that we lost that trophy, we lost that Axe,” Sanborn said. “Then you add the Big Ten championship on top of that, you add a bunch of goals on top of that and it just makes it that much tougher right now.”

What makes it even more difficult is this wasn’t a fluke. The Gophers were the better team Saturday, especially in the second half.

Minnesota had lost its chance at a Big Ten West Division title a day earlier when Iowa rallied to win at Nebraska, yet the Gophers still looked like they were the team that wanted this more — needed it more — than the Badgers.

It showed in the trenches, where Minnesota’s defensive line was relentless and consistently in UW tailback Braelon Allen’s face before he even had a chance to make a cut.

It also showed on the biggest play of the game, an interception on the third play from scrimmage in the second half. UW hadn’t played great to that point but led 10-6 at the half thanks to an interception return by Nelson that turned out to be the Badgers’ only touchdown of the game.

Graham Mertz dropped back and sent a ball toward the sidelines on third-and-7. It was a poorly placed throw, one of several on the day from a UW sophomore quarterback who regressed to first-half-of-the-season Graham Mertz after playing so well down the stretch. Still, it was a ball that could have resulted in a reception had a freshman cornerback (Justin Walley) not won a 50/50 battle with a sixth-year senior wide receiver (Kendric Pryor).

Walley wanted it more and got it. That will led to a turnover the Gophers converted into the go-ahead touchdown two plays later.

“Coming in here and losing that Axe, that kind of — not kind of — that hurts a lot,” Pryor said.

UW’s offense was awful and its special teams provided nothing in the way of splash plays. The defense was OK on a day the Badgers needed it to be great, with junior inside linebacker Leo Chenal nailing it when he said there were “too many mistakes and not enough playmaking.”

The Badgers were undisciplined in all three phases and at times incompetent. The same can be said about Chryst, who appeared to be waving the white towel with just more than four minutes remaining when he sent out the punt team on fourth-and-1 trailing by 10 points.

A false start saved Chryst some embarrassment because the offense came back out and the Badgers converted to move the chains. But it was clear he had messed up and he admitted as much afterward.

“Never should have been thinking punt,” he said. “Didn’t handle that well. Flat out.”

But it was that kind of day in what has been that kind of season for the Badgers. Chryst used the words “disappointed” or “disappointment” six times in his postgame news conference and those are pretty accurate terms to describe this 2021 campaign.

UW was bad in the first month of the season, resilient and back to its roots over the next seven weeks and rotten in the regular-season finale. Instead of preparing to play Michigan with a chance to end the program’s Big Ten title drought, Chryst should spend the next week or two thinking long and hard about making significant changes on his coaching staff and with an offense that has gone stale.

The Badgers will play in a bowl game, and they’ve earned that reward. But an 8-4 overall record and a 6-3 mark in Big Ten play wasn’t good enough for a team with this much experience. That business they talked about three months ago still is unfinished because UW went bankrupt against the team it hates the most.

Contact Jim Polzin at


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