MINNEAPOLIS — Too often a similar scene played out against the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense Saturday evening at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan took a snap, faked a handoff and made a quick throw to an open receiver. The Gophers senior didn’t put up gaudy statistics and he certainly wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t allow the Badgers’ pass rush — arguably the strength of the unit in the games it played the best — to affect him much.
UW fell 23-13 to the Gophers to lose Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the second time in four seasons, give Minnesota its first home win in college football’s most-played rivalry since 2003 and lose its chance to represent the Big Ten West Division in the conference championship game next weekend. While the offense failed to score touchdowns on two red-zone chances and sustain a rushing attack, the defense couldn’t get the consistent pressure it is built on. The result was a crestfallen team featuring 12 senior starters.
“I love this team and I love this program, and the most important thing is the Battle for the Axe,” senior linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “To come up short is not how you want to end it.”
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Morgan threw for 199 yards on 11-for-16 passing and was sacked three times. Morgan was 6-for-6 on the Gophers’ opening drive that ended with a field goal. It was just the second time UW (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten) has allowed an opening-drive score, but it was the second game in a row after Nebraska opened with a touchdown last week.
UW didn’t produce a sack against the Huskers and much of the credit went to Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez’s mobility. He ran away from sacks more than Nebraska stymied the UW pass rush. But Minnesota was able to keep UW’s rush at bay for the most part with a quick, decisive read from Morgan and a mixture of protection schemes.
Junior nose tackle Keeanu Benton had two sacks, the first on a third-and-8 that was aided by solid zone coverage that produced one of the few snaps Morgan had to hold onto the ball for long. Benton’s second sack came on a second-and-6 in the third quarter on which Benton overpowered guard Conner Olson. UW’s final sack came on the first play of the fourth quarter when inside linebackers Sanborn and Leo Chenal finally got home on one of their many blitzes and the play set up a third-and-long.
UW players lamented the lack of third-and-long situations it could force Minnesota into. The Gophers went 5-for-11 on third down — the highest conversion rate allowed by the Badgers this season — but converted just one of more than 6 yards.
“I don’t think they got in situations where … there weren’t a lot of clear pass-rush downs,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “I don’t think through the course of it we got them in those obvious passing situations.”
A lack of pressure by Chenal and Sanborn was perhaps the most troubling aspect because their rushes up the middle have been so vital to the UW defense and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has been aggressive in getting them into the backfield. But the Gophers were able to use their interior linemen and running backs to give Morgan enough time to get away throws, and those passes often became big plays because UW was committing men to the rush.
Morgan completed just five passes after the first drive, but they went for a combined 142 yards and a touchdown.
“Maybe our eyes were bad at some spots and we allowed some plays that maybe we shouldn’t,” Sanborn said. “They were keeping the back in a lot, they were keeping guys into protect (against) us, and credit to them. It comes down to it that we’ve got to win those matchups if they want to keep them in. We’ve got to win. There were times today that we weren’t quick enough or we were a step behind.”
Said Chenal: “It definitely is frustrating. You game plan certain things all week and you tell yourself, ‘If I get this look, I’m going to make this play,’ but they were getting rid of the ball really quick and some of their guys were making some really good blocks and we couldn’t quite get there.”
UW’s outside linebackers weren’t able to apply pressure, either, with senior Noah Burks and sophomore Nick Herbig recording no quarterback hurries. Chenal was the only player to record a hurry, and that came on the first drive of the game.
Minnesota used a formation with multiple tight ends for a majority of the game, which widened out the outside linebackers from the ball. This elongated their path to the quarterback, and UW’s defensive linemen weren’t able to get enough penetration to make up for the schematic disadvantage.
“Their RPO schemes, they made it tough for us to get a consistent pressure off that,” said Burks, who had two tackles and tipped a pass that became a pick-6 for the Badgers’ lone touchdown.
Herbig, who had eight tackles but none for loss, was not made available to reporters though he was requested.
UW will have about a month to tinker with its pass rush before it plays again — the loss to Minnesota likely pushes the Badgers to the Music City or Las Vegas bowls Dec. 28. But the frustration of losing the Axe because a quarterback was comfortable too often will eat at the Badgers.
“I felt like we did enough to get by as a defense,” Benton said. “We didn’t do anything spectacular. We could’ve definitely stepped up in some areas and made some plays.”
Badgers fans on Twitter are livid after Wisconsin's Big Ten title chase ends with a loss at Minnesota
Take a hard look in the mirror
Expectations every year is that the Badger should win the West. 3 of the last 4 years they have not. They had a chance for a successful season after a 1-3 start, but that fell short with tonight’s loss. Chryst needs to re-evaluate the direction of the program.— Erik Grinde (@egrinde) November 28, 2021
Flaws on full display
As for the defense, it remains vulnerable to good quarterback play. The Wisconsin secondary is full of gritty, sound guys who are not elite athletes. Badgers’ pass rush can’t compensate for coverage limitations against good teams.— Joseph Britt (@Zathras3) November 28, 2021
Another one gone
Starts at the top
So many bad decisions. Kicking that FG down 7 in 4Q with a kicker who’s long is 43 yards. Has struggled all season with longer kicks. Outdoors, in the cold. He isn’t making a 48 yarder. Then the timeout, punt, false start, go for it on 4th down when trailing by 10 under 5mins 🤷♂️— DRich (@drich318318) November 28, 2021
Not so fast
His D has been exposed the last two weeks so maybe not— Fred Ehle (@FredEhle) November 28, 2021
Grass is always greener ...
Paul Chryst had gotta go— Greg Emmerich (@NRCoachEmmerich) November 28, 2021
Meh. Would’ve been much worse if we realistically had a chance for the CFP. This just prevented us from probably losing to Michigan next week.— Madtown Alum (@madtownalum) November 28, 2021
Far from the top
Don’t have to be elite to beat the Gophers though. This performance today was embarrassing putting it nicely— Eric Lowry (@EricL228) November 28, 2021
Falling short yet again
It's tough bc Chryst has a decent record, but not against ranked teams or big games. Lost twice to MN and can't even win BT West. I think Wisc ADs are fine with average seasons, but don't think Chyrst is the answer to win a Big Ten title. QB Coach/Playcaller that was worst part.— ChazB (@chazb33) November 28, 2021
Running into trouble
A banged-up, ineffective B. Allen really doomed the offense. Surprised they didn’t sub in Julius Davis for some fresh legs. Receivers dropped passes, got beat. Mertz still work in progress. Weren’t going to beat MI in any event.— Patrick G. (@Patrick34524185) November 28, 2021
This checks out
Ready for a new role
Badgers defense 7, Offense 6. Hand the keys to Jim Leonhard— Mitchell Skurzewski (@MSkurzewski) November 28, 2021
How low can he go?
They played jump around after the game. I hate pj fleck.— Tim (@AshBadg) November 28, 2021
Hearts not in it
From the players to the coaching, this was never a team playing for the Axe, let alone a Big Ten Championship Game. The most disappointing loss for Wisconsin under the leadership of Paul Chryst.— Jeff Ostach (@jeff_ostach) November 28, 2021
Tough to stomach
Straight up beaten in every facet of the game…Allen is clearly hurt, but too many players failed to make plays. Coaching was painful— Todd (@pilprin) November 28, 2021
Don't hold your breath
Barry out of retirement to coach.— Soflex Math (@chrisneumer) November 28, 2021
Looking lost out there
10 years ago, Paul was a creative football mind with a Badger offense that was balanced, efficient, and high scoring. The game has passed him by. His offense has gotten stale and predictable. Today it was painful to watch. Time to make Jim Leonhard our HC and hire a modern OC.— Bode (@NickBode41) November 28, 2021
There's one way to look at it
Getting embarrassed today, does avoid getting embarrassed next week.— Holiday (@holidaystyle300) November 28, 2021
In need of an overhaul
Coaching is horrible and QB is worse. They better give Hill a real shot next year as going nowhere with Mertz. Also really need to look at that OL. We used to always be good there, but not this year. D had the tipped ball pick 6 but did little else today. Bad play all around— Phil Leith (@phil_leith) November 28, 2021
Slipped through their fingers
This was a badly played game by the Badgers today. No ground game and no O line and no passing game spells loss big time. Disappointing loss considering our 7 game win streak But No axe, no B1G championship game but……a bowl game to b determined.— Paul Yochum'63 (@PaulYochum63) November 28, 2021
Missing in action
What a day for this team not to show up. Poor play on offense and defense.— Vickie Dahl (@ADPointerNation) November 28, 2021
Nothing new here
Same old story, played just well enough to have a meaningful game today but laid that same egg on the field… no imagination in this team, don’t have the players? Could be but use what ya got and create a game plan exposes Mn flaws, they have them!— B'ing Bri 🇺🇸🍻🧀 (@b_newmiller) November 28, 2021
Taking 11 steps back
Felt like first losses of the season...confusing play calling, OL not good enough, etc. Continued concerns with Chryst management and inability to adapt in game.— Jeremy Wojtecki (@jwojPAC) November 28, 2021
Also, attrition finally caught up in the RB room.
If not now, when?
I think it’s time to have a serious discussion about PC. Offense is stale and Mertz hasn’t progressed at all since he’s been here. Very disappointing loss today.— Dan Buhler (@FBuhlersDayOff) November 28, 2021
All quiet ... for now
I read all the comments below. Chryst termination will not happen until after next year. Why? Our road schedule in 2022 is difficult. Could end up 6-6 or 7-5 only because we have 3 cupcakes at home.— Steven Smith (@SteveSUWbba) November 28, 2021
One to forget
One of the more disappointing, lethargic, uninspired losses of the Chryst era, with a division title up for grabs— Sam Oleson (@sam_olesonFDL) November 28, 2021