MINNEAPOLIS – The 22-point home loss to Minnesota in the 2018 regular season finale was devastating.
The Gophers physically beat UW, snapped a 14-game losing streak and took Paul Bunyan’s Ax home for the first time since the 2003 season.
The pain UW players will feel after their 23-13 loss to the Gophers on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium will be deeper and last longer.
“That’s the worst feeling you can have,” junior linebacker Leo Chenal said. “It just hurts so much. I just looked at the axe, watching them grab it. It was hard to see.”
UW entered the game needing a win to clinch a share of the West Division title, secure a spot in the Big Ten title game against Michigan and take the ax back to Madison.
More: UW vs. Minnesota: Awards, inside the huddle and by the numbers
More: Former shortstop John Torchio has made an impact as a backup safety, but is eager to get even better
More: Collin Larsh announces plans to return for sixth season, giving Badgers a veteran placekicker in 2022
Paul Chryst and his players went 0-3 and saw their winning streak end at seven games.
The Badgers (8-4, 6-3) must stay at home next weekend while Iowa (10-2, 7-2) and Michigan (11-1, 8-1) battle for the title in Indianapolis.
To say the Gophers (8-4, 6-3) ruined the Badgers’ day and ruined their regular season is an understatement.
Senior cornerback Caesar Williams gave an impassioned and lengthy response when asked to sum up his feelings.
“The ax was the most important thing at stake today,” said Williams, who contested an interference call against him in the crucial third quarter when the Gophers scored two touchdowns. “The ax was all that mattered. To keep the ax in Madison, because that’s the tradition.
“We’re not losing to Minnesota. Big Ten Championship (game) on the line or not, we’re not losing to Minnesota.”
A reporter replied: However, today you lost.
“This is honestly the worst feeling in the world,” Williams said. “All the work the previous players have done to finish the streak and get us into the lead, it’s just a shame for the program to lose the ax.”
UW faced a 20-13 deficit when it took over at its own 32 with 13 minutes, 27 seconds left, following a punt.
The offense had been held to 175 total yards on 42 plays and just two field goals to that point. UW drove from its own 32 to the Minnesota 30, but Graham Mertz ran off three straight and Collin Larsh missed a 48-yarder with 11:44 left, the ball hitting the crossbar.
Minnesota answered with a field goal that covered 52 yards and took nine plays and 5:36.
“Guys are hurting,” said outside linebacker Noah Burks, who chased down a pass near the line of scrimmage that resulted in Scott Nelson’s 25-yard interception for a touchdown in the second quarter. “We all feel pain. Obviously, we couldn’t achieve what we wanted. We were just disappointed.
“It’s our biggest game of the year. Biggest rivalry. Biggest rivalry in college football. We’ve been so dominant in this game for so long, nobody wants to be on the losing team.”
Minnesota entered the day with the No. 3 rushing defense in the Big Ten, allowing an average of 103.6 yards per game. Opponents had rushed for just 10 touchdowns in 11 games.
The Gophers were only as good as the numbers said.
Braelon Allen was limited to 29 yards on 10 carries in the first half and finished with 47 yards on 17 carries. Twelve of his first 16 carries went for 3 yards or less.
UW finished with 62 yards on 22 carries and just 233 total yards.
Mertz, who had completed 71.9 percent of his passes (41 of 57) for an average of 200.3 yards in the previous three games, finished 21 of 38 for 171 yards, with one interception.
“We knew coming in it was a good defense,” said a disappointed Chryst. “We couldn’t run the ball consistently. And we had some in the passing game, but nothing solid.
“We couldn’t finish. Two chances in the red zone and we scored instead of touchdowns. Against a good team that’s going to make it tough.”
Losing safety Collin Wilder on a targeting call just six seconds into the game didn’t make life any easier.
UW went with Nelson and John Torchio, but both appeared to be beaten off the line of scrimmage to pass plays of 20-plus yards by Brevyn Spann-Ford, who finished with three catches for 62 yards.
Minnesota tailbacks Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving combined to rush for 94 yards on 30 carries, enough to keep the UW defense honest. Thomas scored on a 2-yard run to give the Gophers a 13-10 lead just 1:36 into the third quarter.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan, who entered the day completing 59.1 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions, completed 11 of 16 passes for 199 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
He was efficient and made critical shots when the Gophers needed them. His 27-yard touchdown pass to Chris Autman-Bell on first-and-20 gave the Gophers a 20-13 lead with 1:56 left in the third quarter.
“I definitely don’t think we played to our potential, what we could do,” Chenal said. “I think we left too much meat on the bone, as the term goes. Too many mistakes and not enough play. That’s the thing.”
UW got the ball to start the second half, but turned it over on third-and-7 from the 21.
Mertz tried to hit Kendrick Pryor near the right side, but the ball was thrown up and in. Cornerback Justin Walley wrestled Pryor for the ball for the interception at the UW 28.
A 26-yard pass from Morgan to tight end Span-Ford and a 2-yard run from freshman tailback Thomas gave the Gophers a 13-10 lead with 13:24 left in the third.
“Definitely a big run to start the second half,” Chryst said. “The pick. We gave them a short 10-6 pitch and they scored.”
Mertz added: “It was one-on-one with Kendrick. I’m going to give my guy a shot. I could (throw it) out a little bit more. But one-on-one I’m going to go trust my guy.”
UW took the ensuing kickoff and drove from its 25 to the Minnesota 9, but Allen lost 2 yards on second-and-5 and Jake Ferguson gained just 2 yards on third down.
Larsh hit a 28-yard field goal with 6:35 left in the quarter to forge a 13-13 tie.
“It all depends on the completion of the drivers,” Mertz said. “You can’t win with a field goal.”
The Gophers drove 74 yards in seven plays for the score, Morgan’s 27-yard pass to Ottman-Bell.
UW failed to score on its last four possessions. The closest the Badgers came to scoring was Larsh’s missed 48-yard field goal attempt.
The Badgers came to Huntington Bank Stadium with a chance to clinch a share of the division title, secure a spot in the league title game and beat Minnesota for the third straight season.
UW fell short of its goals and suffered one of its most painful losses since Chryst took over as head coach prior to the 2015 season.
“We didn’t do enough to get the win,” Chryst said. “We didn’t make it.”
Our subscribers make this report possible. Consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Minnesota 23, Wisconsin 13: Badgers denied Big Ten title game berth