MADISON — Coming into the game against Minnesota, the Wisconsin football team’s season had been a disappointment. After a nausea-inducing 37-15 loss to the Gophers, the regular season must be described as nothing short of a spectacular failure. That’s not how those within the program will look at it, but from an outside perspective it’s hard to view it any other way.
The Badgers opened the campaign No. 4 in the country in the Associated Press poll — tied for their highest preseason ranking in school history. They ended the regular season playing one of their worst home games in recent memory and falling to their rival for the first time since 2003. Not since Bret Bielema’s 2008 team walked off its home field as 48-7 losers to Penn State has Wisconsin been beaten as badly at Camp Randall Stadium as it was on Saturday.
But at least that was a loss to a top-10 team. This was 5-6 Minnesota, a team that had not won a game on the road all year and had given up 55 points to Illinois the last time it ventured away from Minneapolis. The Badgers managed just seven points when the game was still in doubt.
“As a coach, you’ve got to own it,” Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst said of the performance. “We’ve got to do a better job of coaching…”
As the Gophers were sprinting to claim Paul Bunyan’s Axe in the south end zone, most of the veteran Badgers were instead focused on getting to the Wisconsin locker room as quickly as possible, not wanting their last memory on a field where they found so much success to be that bitter.
“Probably, my whole life,” guard Beau Benzschawel said of how long it would stay with him that he didn’t get to chop down the goal posts like the previous 14 senior classes had.
Another senior, Michael Deiter, was unable to miss the chopping celebration.
“No, I saw it,” Deiter said. “It hurt [and] it sucked, because I wanted to do it.
“I wanted to put the Axe back in the case. [I’m] disappointed we’re not going to be able to do that.”
For other seniors, the pain of losing was more about those not even on the sideline with them.
“[You’re] not embarrassed but you feel like you let the guys down that were here before you. That’s really tough thinking about,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “I would have never in a million years thought that we would lose this game but we did. It’s tough.”
He wasn’t the only one thinking about those that came before.
“Forever,” safety D’Cota Dixon of the game sticking with him. “That’s a legacy right there. Disappointed. We let down the guys that were in front of me. Warren Herring, Mike Caputo, Leo (Musso).
“There’s no excuses. Nothing to talk about. Plain and simple, they were the better team tonight. They got the Axe.”
Wisconsin’s trophy case is empty for some of the same reasons the season didn’t turn out the way many had predicted it would. The Badgers were haunted by self-inflicted mistakes that had little to do with Minnesota. A missed chip-shot field goal by a senior kicker, four turnovers by a junior quarterback, a breakdown on special teams and frustrating penalties at inopportune times.
“Playing in this league, you’re going to play good teams. That’s tough [enough] to beat,” Chryst said. “And then when you also beat yourself…You have to be a great team to overcome both of those and we’re not right now.”
The Gophers also played a role, obviously. Even after top tackler Blake Cashman was ejected for targeting in the second quarter, the Minnesota defense gave little ground, forcing four fumbles (recovering one) and picking off three passes. Offensively, the Gophers did what Wisconsin so often does to its opponents — crushed their will by winning on first and second down, bullying the Badgers’ defense with the run time and time again. It wasn’t that Wisconsin’s defenders weren’t in spots to make plays — they just didn’t. Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim ran for 121 yards and seemingly always fell forward.
“That’s the hard part,” Edwards said. “First and second down, I think we just lost, quite frankly. That’s kind of what it [came] down to.”
But the process of getting to where Gophers’ coach P.J. Fleck was diving into the locker room with the Axe started before a single snap had been taken in the 2018 season.
The seeds were planted when they lost defensive linemen Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk to injury, the former for the year and the latter for the first two games of the season and playing several more while limited by a different injury. It continued with the suspension of their top wide receiver, Quintez Cephus, in August after he was charged with sexual assault, a case due for trial early next year. The same incident led to the suspension of sophomore wide receiver Danny Davis for two games. A young secondary got even younger with the departures of sophomores Dontye Carriere-Williams and Patrick Johnson just before the start of the year.
Then the games started and the injuries piled up, including the loss of senior leaders in Dixon, tight end Zander Neuville and nose guard Olive Sagapolu for multiple outings. An unexpected loss to BYU and a string of double-digit losses to Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State crushed Wisconsin’s dreams of a Big Ten title and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
The dagger, though, came Saturday. No matter what happened in front of an announced crowd of 74,038, the season was going to fall short of outside expectations, but at least they’d have the Axe. Even in 2008, when they went just 7-6, they managed to beat Minnesota. But unlike the four times they trailed by 10 points or more during the 14-game streak only to rally for a win, they couldn’t find a way back. Instead, they suffered their worst home loss to Minnesota since being shutout 24-0 in 1936. Back then, the Gophers were actually considered a college football powerhouse.
The loss and a season of unfulfilled promise leaves plenty of questions for a program that was 43 yards away from making the playoff with a win over Ohio State in the conference championship game last year. Chryst must own his part in the fall. He has largely lived a charmed existence since coming back to Wisconsin in 2015 to lead the program. Three double-digit win seasons and two division titles laid the groundwork for what was supposed to be the year that the Badgers took it to the next level. Not only did that not happen, the program took a step back.
Chryst denied it after the game on Saturday, but the team often looked unprepared and undisciplined. The offense, which is what Chryst was known for as an assistant, returned nine starters from a year ago but produced fewer points and yards. That’s despite running back Jonathan Taylor rushing for nation-leading 1,981 yards. Blame can be placed plenty of places for the inability to capitalize on the opportunity to be among the best offenses in school history, though a lack of consistency from quarterback Alex Hornibrook, and to a lesser extent Jack Coan, is certainly near the top of the list.
In past seasons, the defense would overcome the offensive inefficiencies. But having to replace seven starters from 2017, losing a number of the experienced guys they did have back to injury and then having to play freshmen along the defensive line and secondary proved to be too much for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.
Special teams were also less than special in many cases, including on Saturday. Rafael Gaglianone missed a chip shot field on the first drive, they allowed a punt return for a score near the end of the first half and then had a fumble and a penalty on kick return in the second half.
“I’d say no,” Chryst said when asked if his team had won any of the three phases of the game on Saturday.
That was the case way too often this year. In some games they were able to overcome the mistakes and being outplayed for large stretches. Their 7-5 record could easily have been 5-7 or worse.
Much of the talk afterward was about sending the seniors out with a bowl victory, whatever bowl that ends up being. It’s a worthy effort and one a special group that won a lot of games deserves.
But no matter what happens in that game, it must not overshadow what we’ve seen in the 12 games played already. Wisconsin has too much talent to be sitting home watching Northwestern play for a conference title next Saturday. The coaching staff has proven it’s capable enough to get them there, though if the the last decade of constant turnover is any indication, there will be changes before next season. Some of the best players the program has seen will leave and ones with bright futures will arrive. It will be on all parties — coaches, returning players and new ones — to make sure that the scenes that unfolded in Ann Arbor, Evanston, University Park and under the lights on the final week of the season are a one-year dip and not the start of a downward trend.