Nov. 25, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Wisconsin players, one by one, posed with Paul Bunyan’s Axe before leaving the visitor’s locker room in TCF Bank Stadium. It has become part of the routine for the last 10 years.
“This is a dream come true,” said UW linebacker Brendan Kelly, who’s from Eden Prairie, Minn. “I wanted to keep that Axe every single year that I was here and we did that. I’m on cloud nine.”
Kelly, a sixth-year senior, is no stranger to the postgame celebration, which involves running around the field with the Axe. Still, he said, “I can’t get enough of it.”
It was echoed by all of his teammates after Wisconsin’s 20-7 victory over Minnesota. The final score doesn’t begin to reflect the domination of the Badgers in this game, or series, most recently.
“We left a lot out there,” said tight end Jacob Pedersen. “There were a lot of plays that we should have made. But credit them. They’ve definitely improved from early in my career.”
If nothing else, the Gophers have made the rivalry more competitive than it had been. “I thought they were the most physical team we’ve played this year,” said senior linebacker Chris Borland.
Nonetheless, Minnesota had few answers for Wisconsin’s defense. Quarterback Philip Nelson completed just 7 of 23 passes and the Gophers finished with 185 yards of total offense.
“We did a great job in preparation during the week and it paid off,” Kelly said. “Early on, they had some success running the ball. But we made a couple of adjustments at halftime.
“I thought we were playing as a unit and really getting after it (in the second half). Communication is the most important thing.
“Getting lined up before the snap with all the shifts, trades and motions that they do was a big emphasis going into the game.”
The UW’s 3-4 defensive scheme puts a lot of pressure on the defensive backs to play man coverage; which has been an ongoing stage in the maturation of defense, specifically the corners.
“We do play a lot of press-man,” Borland said. “It puts our corners and our safeties at times on islands and our nickels on individual players. They’ve been asked to do a lot, but they’ve responded.”
So did Borland with another forced fumble, his 14th, tying the Big Ten record. “It’s just nice to play for wins, not records,” he said afterward. “But it was a big momentum shift for us.”
Defensively, the Gophers tweaked their alignment and it forced some adjustments.
“They switched to some stuff over their bye week that they hadn’t come out with earlier in the year and it threw us off a little bit,” said guard Ryan Groy. “But we got the scheme down.
“They were playing well, they were putting nine or 10 in the box and they were really heavy with that (overload) and that’s why we had a couple of passes open in the third quarter.
“I thought we could have executed better overall, but we got it done.”
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The weather conditions weren’t a factor from a comfort standpoint. “It was cold,” Groy said, “but it wasn’t horrible. I don’t think it affected us. We were prepared for it and we were ready.”
Interjected Kelly, “We had the sun on our sideline for most of the game, so it was great.”
The spotlight will now shine on the seniors during a pregame ceremony Saturday before the Badgers take on Penn State in the regular-season finale at Camp Randall Stadium.
“It’s kind of nuts to think it’s the last time we’ll be playing there,” said Groy, who then put the game into perspective. “Getting to 10 wins would mean everything.”
Especially, he implied, during a transition year. “It would say a lot about the new coaching staff,” Kelly said, “to get a 10-win season. We want to show the country what we can do.”
There will obviously be no shortage of emotion for the seniors. “It’s going to be kind of bittersweet,” Borland said, “but I’m going to try and enjoy it.”
Thirty minutes after Saturday’s win, Pedersen said, “It hasn’t set in for me yet it’s going to be my final home game. I love Wisconsin and I’m ready to come out and have the best game of my career.”
Borland brought even more context to playing Penn State with a chance to improve to 10-2.
“It’s not just a sentimental game (for the seniors) or an end-of-the-season game,” Borland said. “It’s a pivotal game and we need to perform well.”
Which casts these seniors in an appropriate light.