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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.”

University of Wisconsin football players speak to the media after the 18th-ranked Badgers fell to the Minnesota Golden Gophers 23-13 in the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

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.

University of Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst speaks to the media after the 18th-ranked Badgers fell to the Minnesota Golden Gophers 23-13 in the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

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.”


This article originally ran on madison.com.

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