Gophers in bowl limbo after losing axe to Badgers

Published 9:15 pm Sunday, November 29, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS — More than anything on Saturday, the Minnesota Golden Gophers were hoping to walk out of TCF Bank Stadium with Paul Bunyan’s Axe, a coveted trophy they have not held since 2003.

They were also hoping to secure a bowl bid with a win over Wisconsin. The Gophers missed out on the first of those and now must wait to hear their bowl game fate.

Dare Ogunbowale rushed for a career-high 155 yards and a touchdown and Wisconsin beat Minnesota for the 12th straight time, 31-21.

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Taiwan Deal rushed for 90 and two scores and Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) kept Paul Bunyan’s Axe, which goes to the winner of the most-played rivalry game in college football.

Mitch Leidner was just 16 for 37 for 223 yards with a touchdown, three interceptions and a fumble for Minnesota (5-7, 2-6), which hasn’t beaten its border rival since 2003. The Golden Gophers turned the ball over five times.

“We set goals and expectations at the beginning of the season and based off what happened last year. We really had high goals,” Leidner said. “We didn’t meet those goals. It’s tough, it’s tough on the team, tough on everybody.”

Things looked promising early for Minnesota after senior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun intercepted Wisconsin’s Joel Stave and returned it 16 yards to the end zone for a 7-0 Gophers lead. From there, Minnesota’s offense couldn’t manage much of anything in the first half, and the Badgers racked up 199 of their 257 yards rushing in the first half to take a 28-14 lead into halftime.

Minnesota’s defense eventually found a way to stop Wisconsin’s rushing attack and held the Badgers to three points in the second half. Three second-half interceptions by Leidner proved costly even as the Gophers held Wisconsin’s offense in check.

Minnesota was outgained 336-276 in total yardage and lost the time of possession 40:35-19:25. The Gophers had 53 yards rushing on 18 carries.

“Obviously wins and loss wise, it’s a step back,” said Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys. “But I feel like we’ve got good kids coming back. Those seniors have done a tremendous amount. It’s a hell of a lot better place to be than when we got here, but we do have some work to do and I know that.”

The Gophers have won the axe just twice in the last 21 years, and the 12-game losing streak is the longest drought for either side in the history of a 125-year-old rivalry. They were hoping to get a boost from the return of former coach Jerry Kill, who was forced to retire earlier this season after being unable to control the seizures caused by his epilepsy.

Kill led the Gophers out of the tunnel and waved a “Jerrysota” flag just before kickoff, receiving a roaring ovation. As it turned out, the emotional return of Kill wasn’t enough.

“Since Jerry’s been here, we haven’t been able to win the Axe,” said Gophers receiver Drew Wolitarsky, who caught a fourth-quarter touchdown. “So today, that was our goal, to get it for Jerry. Unfortunately we couldn’t do that. I’m sure he’s proud of the way we played.”

Even without the necessary six wins needed to become bowl eligible, there’s a chance Minnesota could sneak into a bowl game with a 5-7 record. There are not enough six-win teams to fill all the bowl games, so at least a few five-win squads will get that chance.

The Gophers hope they’re one of them.

“That’d be a great opportunity for us,” Leidner said. “I think we’d be probably a good candidate based off the schedule we’ve had this season and how well we played against some really good teams.”