When it comes to axes, safety is always key.
The Wisconsin football team found that to be doubly true Saturday.
In a rivalry contest that was even in so many ways, a pair of fourth-quarter safeties were the difference for the Badgers in their quest to keep hold of Paul Bunyans Axe.
Wisconsin forced arch-rival Minnesota into its own end zone on consecutive drives midway through the final period as part of a run of 18 unanswered points that led the Badgers to a 35-32 win in front of a sellout crowd at Camp Randall Stadium.
Momentum is a big thing, especially in a close game, said senior defensive lineman Mike Newkirk. It can really spark a team.
After trailing 21-7 at halftime, the Badgers brought the contest back to even when junior tailback P.J. Hill scored from 1 yard out to make the score 24-24 with 13:25 to play.
The tie lasted just nine seconds.
Thats because, on the ensuing kickoff, Antonio Fenelus forced a fumble by Minnesota returner Troy Stoudermire that the Gophers failed to pounce on before it rolled into their end zone. Make it 26-24, Badgers.
We have been harping on our special teams quite a bit and we had some positive things happen this week and in todays game, head coach Bret Bielema said.
The Badgers didnt rest on their new-found lead, though, as the Gophers next drive began with a sack of quarterback Adam Weber by Newkirk. Ironically enough, the drive ended the same way two plays later.
Thats when Newkirk planted Weber into the end zone for his second sack and the Badgers second defensive score.
You get close so many times and a guy gets rid of it and throws it away, Newkirk said. It was nice (Weber) held onto it for me.
In all, the Badgers sacked Weber three times, forced three fumbles and held the Gophers to a net rushing total of 99 yards. An interception by Niles Brinkley with less than two minutes to play sealed things for the Badgers, who own the Axe for 12th time in the last 14 renewals of the Border Battle.
This rivalry always has big plays in it, and big plays always seem to determine the game, Newkirk said. Its just a fight.
You cant ever throw in the towel, and youve got to keep going and youve got to keep grinding.
IT WAS THE WORST OF TIMES, IT WAS THE BEST OF TIMES
After fumbling five times and giving up touchdowns on three consecutive Minnesota possessions in the first half, the Badgers looked like a completely different team when they emerged from the locker room for the third quarter.
It was frustrating, the turnovers, said junior quarterback Dustin Sherer. You just have to persevere and move on.
For us to come out in the second half and play well was huge.
The UW did not surrender a turnover in the second half and outscored the Gophers 28-11 after intermission, rolling up 229 yards of total offense. Defensively, the Badgers gave up just 123 offensive yards and held the Gophers to a combined 2-for-7 on third- and fourth-down conversion attempts in the second half.
We came in saying our defense needed to outplay their defense, Newkirk said. In the first half that wasnt something we were doing we came out in the second half and knew we needed to play better.
The effort resulted in the largest deficit the Badgers have rallied from since they defeated Illinois 30-24 after trailing 21-3 on Oct. 28, 2006.
We knew it was going to be a battle, Hill said. We had the Axe in our possession and we knew they wanted it.
We werent going to let them get it.
The Badgers are now winners of consecutive games, but the path to victory took on a very different form in each.
Wisconsin rolled up 441 rushing yards en route to a 55-20 win over Indiana last week, but it took a much more balanced attack for the Badgers to get past Minnesota on Saturday.
The Badgers finished with 116 net rushing yards against the Gophers, and P.J. Hill racked up 117 yards on his own. That considered, a healthy portion of the UW offense came from the arm of Sherer, who completed 18 passes for 242 yards, both career-highs.
The junior signal-caller connected with Garrett Graham on a 2-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring and was effective in moving the UW offense during the Badgers second-half surge.
I got my feet settled in and started making plays, Sherer said. We all started playing well in the second half.
He connected with sophomore wide receiver Isaac Anderson six times, as Anderson amassed a career-high total of 116 receiving yards.
With the excitement that my teammates brought, it made it easier for me to be comfortable, Sherer said. Being at home and having our fans bring the intensity is really important to our success.
With their sixth win of the season, the Badgers became bowl-eligible for the seventh-consecutive season.
It feels good, redshirt freshman receiver Nick Toon said. Weve gone through some things this year and it feels good to have all the hard work we put in pay off.
As if a rivalry win over Minnesota and a triumph in their final Big Ten Conference game of the season wasnt motivation enough for the Badgers, a chance to play one more game certainly was.
We wanted to work hard this week because we were playing for the Axe, and we were also playing for one more game, Hill said. We had to take care of the Gophers first, and now we have another opportunity and we have to prepare for Cal Poly the same way.
With 117 rushing yards on 24 carries, Hill was certainly the Badgers No. 1 workhorse on the ground.
He also was the one the UW coaching staff called on when the Badgers needed a finisher.
Hill found the end zone from 1 yard out twice in the second half for his 10th and 11th touchdowns of the season. In doing so, he joins Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne as the only two players in UW history to score at least 10 rushing touchdowns in each of their first three seasons.
I always play until someone knocks me out of the game, said Hill, who left the game briefly with a stinger. I know how much I mean to the team and those guys up front mean a lot to me, too.
The guys up front did a great job, the fullbacks did a great job, and I just wanted to be there for those guys.
CLAY CARRIES THE FLAG LITERALLY
There was one notable absence when the Badgers grabbed hold of Paul Bunyans Axe and proceeded to chop down the goalpost in Camp Randall Stadiums south end zone after sealing the win over Minnesota.
Redshirt freshman tailback John Clay instead took hold of the giant red flag carried around during the game by Bucky and the spirit squad and sprinted around the north end of the field to the delight of the UW student section.
I wanted the seniors to have the Axe and have their moment with it, he said. I went and grabbed the flag instead.