Minnesota chops down No. 18 Wisconsin to take back Paul Bunyan's Axe

Gophers claim Paul Bunyan's Axe
Minnesota defensive back Phillip Howard (2) and Minnesota fans celebrate with Paul Bunyan's Axe after the Gophers defeated the Wisconsin Badgers 23-13 on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
David Berding | Getty Images

Tanner Morgan overcame an interception that was returned for a first-half touchdown, leading Minnesota on three scoring drives after halftime to surge past No. 18 Wisconsin 23-13, take back Paul Bunyan's Axe and give Iowa the Big Ten West Division title Saturday.

Morgan, who went 11 for 16 for 199 yards and a third-quarter touchdown pass to Chris Autman-Bell, led the Gophers on the sprint into the end zone to hoist the 73-year-old trophy on their home field for the first time since 2003.

As the crowd streamed onto the turf, the rap song “Jump Around” played over the speakers in a taunt of Wisconsin's home-game anthem.

The Gophers (8-4, 6-3) delivered the kind of inspired and stifling performance by their defense that the Badgers (8-4, 6-3, No. 14 CFP) were used to demoralizing their opponents with. They held freshman standout Braelon Allen to 47 yards on 17 rushes and forced Graham Mertz to throw throughout the second half to favorable results.

Mertz went 21 for 38 for 171 yards and an interception.

Gophers claim Paul Bunyan's Axe
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan (center) looks to pass during the first quarter of a game against the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday.
David Berding | Getty Images

Allen topped the 100-yard mark in each of the last seven games, all wins for Wisconsin. The Badgers had 62 rushing yards, after averaging 229 yards on the ground entering the week.

Collin Larsh made two field goals for Wisconsin but had a 48-yard try — four yards beyond his career long — bounce off the crossbar early in the fourth quarter. Minnesota went the other way for Matthew Trickett's third field goal of the game to put the stamp on it.

Scott Nelson returned a tipped-ball interception 25 yards for a touchdown for the Badgers early in the second quarter to give them a 10-3 lead.

The Gophers got their first big break early in the third quarter when Justin Walley, who had two pass interference penalties on the afternoon while covering Kendric Pryor, wrestled away a catch by Pryor for his first career interception at the Wisconsin 28.

Morgan hit tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford for 26 yards to the 2 on the next play. Then Ky Thomas ran it in for a 13-10 lead with eight offensive linemen blocking on the play.

Gophers claim Paul Bunyan's Axe
Minnesota fans reach up toward Paul Bunyan's Axe after Minnesota defeated Wisconsin on Saturday.
Stacy Bengs | AP

Minnesota reached the end zone on its next possession, too, moving Morgan into second place on the program's all-time list with 56 career touchdown passes.

The Gophers honored their seniors in customary fashion with flowers presented to the parents and hugs and pictures with their sons, but because of the free year of eligibility from the pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season there's no clarity yet on which players are actually leaving or staying.

Morgan, who's in his fifth year with the program and is the career leader for a Gophers quarterback with 26 victories as a starter, has not yet declared his status for 2022. He didn't participate in the pregame tribute, though, perhaps a sign he'd like to return.

Either way, Morgan was going to have to make his share of significant completions to win this one, facing as formidable of a Badgers defense as he and his teammates had seen in their careers.

Even by settling for a field goal, Morgan and the Gophers served notice on their first possession that they weren't going to go quietly as has been the case so often in this series over the last three decades. Wisconsin also lost safety Collin Wilder, who had two interceptions against Nebraska last week, after the first snap because of an automatic-ejection targeting foul for leading with his helmet on Autman-Bell.

This was the second time in four years the Gophers have beaten the Badgers, following 14 straight losses.

The Badgers will get their bowl game invitation Dec. 5. Four losses make them unlikely to play somewhere on New Year's Day. The Las Vegas or Music City bowls on Dec. 30 are strong possibilities.

The Gophers, also a long shot for a Jan. 1 bowl, are essentially in the mix for the same postseason games as the Badgers.

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