Another Listless Performance Costs Wisconsin The Axe

Another Listless Performance Costs Wisconsin The Axe

Football

Another Listless Performance Costs Wisconsin The Axe

MADISON, Wis. – Jake Ferguson couldn’t force himself to watch. The redshirt freshman tight probably thought by not looking he could block out what was actually happening.

Fueled by 14 years of frustration, Minnesota’s players didn’t wait for the clock to strike zero on the 37-15 butt kicking they handed Wisconsin before sprinting to the south end zone goal post to retrieve Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

It was ironic that the same old story for Wisconsin’s offense caused the Gophers to break their cycle on ineptitude to not only beat the Badgers, but knock off UW in Madison for the first time since 1994, record its biggest margin of victory in the series since 1969 and biggest win at Wisconsin since 1936.

It was that bad and the final score doesn’t indicate just how big of a slaughter it was in all three phases, especially on offense.

Facing a Gophers defense that was so bad it fired their defensive coordinator earlier this month, Wisconsin managed only 359 yards of offense and two touchdowns, the last one meaningless in a story of inconsistency that has been prevalent since the season began.

“You can’t turn the ball and you have to make plays to win football games against teams who are playing well,” senior lineman Michael Deiter said. “We just didn’t make enough.”

In reality, the Badgers (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten) didn’t make any after scratching out a touchdown with one second remaining in the first half to put some points on the board. Not only did UW cut the lead to 17-7 at halftime, they were getting the ball to start the second half.

After all, UW wiped out a 17-3 deficit four seasons ago at Camp Randall, so who wouldn’t think they’d do it again?

“There was a little momentum there,” Ferguson said, who caught the 7-yard touchdown pass with one second left on the game clock. “We got fired up there for a little bit. Then the second half we didn’t play how we wanted to.”

The word was the same from every offensive player who addressed the media: execution. To be more specific, a lack thereof.

Wisconsin committed four turnovers, held the ball for only 8 minutes, 20 seconds in the second half and ran only one play in Minnesota territory until the final two-and-a-half minutes. UW’s first three drives were repeats of past game’s failures, failing to capitalize on a 13-play drive that ended at the Minnesota 13 (missed field goal), a drive that ended at Minnesota 44 (punt) and a series that ended at the Gophers 26 (interception).

“That’s pretty much what’s been stopping us all year, that one thing here and then trying to get back to where we were from that,” senior guard Beau Benzschawel said. “It’s kind of tough to dig yourself out of those holes.”

It also doesn’t help when a team’s quarterback can’t ignite the engine.

Quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s season was tossed off the rails in late October. He started experiencing concussion symptoms in the days following Wisconsin’s 49-20 win over Illinois Oct.20, resulting in him being placed in the concussion protocol.

He traveled but did not dress for UW’s 31-17 loss at Northwestern, a defeat that contributed to the Badgers not advancing to the conference title game for the first time since 2015. He returned the next week but sustained a second concussion right on the last play before halftime of UW’s 31-17 win over Rutgers. He didn’t travel the last two weeks to road games at Penn State and Purdue.

The junior appeared to be returning against the right opponent. Plagued with turnovers in every Big Ten game a year ago, Hornibrook went 15-for-19 for 151 yards for three touchdowns to cap drives of 73, 79 and 80 yards in a 31-0 victory in Minneapolis to close the 2017 regular season.

He was a shell of that player Saturday, throwing three interceptions and fumbling away another turnover, leading to 24 points off turnovers for the Gophers.

“Certainly felt confident with the way he practiced and what he did that he was going to be ready for it,” head coach Paul Chryst said of Hornibrook. “Any time you turn the ball that number of times, you make it tough on yourself.”

Chryst didn’t place all the blame on Hornibrook. After all, he wasn’t a part of the special teams that showcased bad tackling on a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter or on a defense that allowed Minnesota to convert all three fourth downs and hold the ball for 35 minutes, 6 seconds.

UW’s defense forced no turnovers against a team that had committed 25 on the season, registered no sacks, one quarterback hurry and couldn’t get off the field. When UW needed to make a stop to trim into a 23-7 deficit, the Gophers chewed 9 minutes, 16 seconds off the clock. That drive ended with no points, but the Gophers fixed that by turning two Hornibrook turnovers into an easy 14 points.

“That’s kind of the theme of the game,” said senior T.J. Edwards, who had a career-high 18 tackles, “on first and second down we couldn’t make them uncomfortable or put them in a tough third-down situation … we couldn’t get it done.”

“We just haven’t put together a complete game,” he added. “At times there’s been just mental errors and mental mistakes that you can’t do at this level.”

Benzschawel had resisted the urge to “chop” down the goal posts his first four years, wanting to wait until he was a senior to enjoy the moment in front of his home fans.

Instead, he joined Ferguson and others in simply walking back to the locker room, trying to make sense of a season that started with so much promise as the fourth-ranked team in the country to end with such a huge dud.

“(This will stick with me) probably my whole life,” Benzschawel said. “Flat out.”

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