October 3, 2009

UW survives late rally, retains Paul Bunyan's axe

MINNEAPOLIS - John Clay rushed for 184 yards and scored three touchdowns. And for Wisconsin, they needed every single one of them in its 31-28 win over rival Minnesota during the inaugural Big Ten game at TCF Bank stadium.

Just in the fourth quarter alone, the Badgers withstood an 86-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown, a three-play, 80-yard drive for a touchdown, a partially blocked punt and a near onside kick recovery by the Gophers.

In short, it was your prototypical battle for Paul Bunyan's axe. And for the sixth straight season, the Badgers keep it in their possession.

"I knew we were going to go through some momentum swings today," UW head coach Bret Bielema said following the game. "I can't say enough about the resiliency of this team. We tend to make things a little more difficult than they need to."

Trailing to start the second half, the Badgers made it clear they wanted to run the ball. Clay, who had only six rushes at halftime, carried the ball 26 times in the second half and helped put UW in a position to seal the win.

Up 24-13, Wisconsin had the ball inside the Gophers red zone midway through the fourth quarter. Already in field goal position and facing a third and 10, UW decided to run a draw with Zach Brown.

Brown took the ball and went right, but as he was coming down he fumbled only to see Marcus Sherels pick up the loose ball and sprint 86 yards for a momentum-changing touchdown.

"We just expected a big play to happen because it's a rivalry," UW senior defensive end O'Brien Schofield, who finished with six tackles, two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss, said after the game. "It's nothing new. You can't be out there and think you're going to blow every team out. You got to be ready for change. You have to be ready for sudden change.

"That gave them the momentum, but we learned something there."

Following that score, and subsequent two-point conversion that cut the Badger lead to 24-21 with seven minutes to play, the Badgers responded with a momentum swing of their own.

After consistently running the ball the majority of the second half, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst called a naked bootleg for Scott Tolzien. The play was set up perfectly and caught Minnesota off guard.

The result? Tolzien rumbled 47 yards to set up the eventual touchdown that turned out to be what UW needed to retain the axe.

"I'm not saying I called it," Bielema, who has never lost the axe as the head coach, said. "You know what, we just constantly check. When we give so much action at the point of attack with John, you got a couple of things going on there.

"You've got the ball coming downhill. You've got a reverse look going with the wide receiver. When the quarterback comes out with it, there's just a lot of things for the defense to see. What I liked was the double forearm grip near the 10 yard line."

But, even after Clay punched in his third touchdown of the game a few plays later to give UW a 10-point margin with three minutes to play, Minnesota responded in quick fashion.

Adam Weber, who finished with 271 yards passing and a touchdown, found Eric Decker open down the seam. The play accounted for 40 of Decker's 140 yards receiving on the game. The senior wide receiver also scored a first half touchdown.

Two plays later, Duane Bennett capped the Gophers three-play, 80-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run to yet again cut the UW lead to three.

"It's hard to put into words the disappointment we feel right now," Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster said after the loss. "We took a good shot and I'm also just extremely disappointed for our players again because they fought their guts out and put themselves in a position to go win the football game at the end of the game."

Following the score, Minnesota kicked an onside kick and had a shot at it before UW wide receiver Nick Toon reeled it in. But, UW would go three and out on that series setting up another big play that almost was for the Gophers.

On fourth down, the Gophers sent an all-out punt block at Badger punter Brad Nortman and Keanon Cooper got a piece of the ball. However, in a bit of fortune for Wisconsin, the ball somehow rolled down to the Gophers five yard line, pinning them deep in their own zone without any timeouts.

But still, the relentless Gophers moved the ball out past its 30 when Decker caught a 19-yard pass on fourth and 18 to keep the drive alive. On the next play though, Schofield forced a Weber fumble and saw his teammate Chris Borland recover the fumble to seal the win.

"In this type of game playing that type of opponent, it's tough to go 97 yards with a minute and no timeouts," Weber said. "It would have been tough."

With the win, the Badgers moved to 5-0 overall and 2-0 in Big Ten play to start the season.

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