Wisconsin blows past Minnesota late to keep CFP hopes alive
The second half was about as perfect as Paul Chryst could’ve drawn up.
Wisconsin’s defense looked as good as it had at any point in the season for those final two quarters. It gave up 60 yards, intercepted four passes and didn’t surrender a single point. The Badgers had the type of performance that will give Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and the rest of the Penn State offense nightmares.
An overpowering second half resulted in a 31-17 win over Minnesota, keeping Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Madison for a 13th-straight season. More importantly, though, the win kept Wisconsin’s College Football Playoff hopes alive entering the B1G Championship Game next week with losses to only Michigan and Ohio State.
The Badgers did as most assumed; they ran the table after battling the Wolverines and the Buckeyes in the front portion of the schedule. They passed tests from Iowa, Northwestern, Nebraska and Minnesota. A spotty offense rode the coattails of a stifling defense back to a B1G West crown and a fourth conference championship appearance in six seasons. This time, though, Wisconsin is in a legitimate position to compete for a national title if it takes care of business in Indianapolis.
Taking care of business is going to be a lot harder, though, if the Badgers don’t bring a better fight next week.
Being outplayed early in this one isn’t much of a surprise. Wisconsin hasn’t been challenged much the last two weeks, making quick work of Illinois and Purdue in consecutive weekends. Any team might come out sluggish after cruising to a few victories effortlessly. And Minnesota brought the fight. The Gophers were coming off their best defensive outing of the season against Northwestern and were anxious to end a 12-year drought against the Badgers.
Wisconsin wasn’t just outplayed on a possession or two, though. No, Minnesota dominated the entire first half.
Minnesota took a 17-7 lead into the half. There were no turnovers and the Gophers had piled up 226 yards of offense against that pesky Wisconsin defense. The Badgers were beaten at the line of scrimmage most of the first 30 minutes, failing to slow down a middling offense.
That’s the troubling part for Wisconsin as it booked its trip back to the Circle City.
Penn State’s offense is far more potent than anything Tracy Claeys has rolled out this season. McSorley is more effective than Mitch Leidner and Barkley is better than any ball-carrier the Badgers have seen this season – including LSU’s Leonard Fournette. In the last five games, the Nittany Lions have scored 232 points (46.4 per game).
It could be the best offense Wisconsin has faced all year.
And yet, the Badgers struggled with a Minnesota team they should’ve pummeled, at least on the defensive side of the ball. Everything was corrected in the second half. The Gophers couldn’t run the ball and Leidner couldn’t handle the pressure. Wisconsin smothered its rival and redeemed itself for the first half woes.
But there’s still some reason for concern
If that first half group shows up next weekend for any period of time – Wisconsin’s playoff hopes are in serious jeopardy.
Penn State is surging. In a matter of six weeks, it’s turned its fortunes from a middle-of-the-road B1G team into one of the top football squads in the nation. It’s got some of the top offensive weapons in the conference. It’s more confident than it has ever been under James Franklin. The last thing the Badgers need is to provide the Nittany Lions with a glimmer of hope.
One bad quarter, one bad possession, that’s all it takes. On Saturday, Wisconsin had one bad half and somehow found a way to escape with a win.
If the Badgers defense spots Penn State a few drives next week, you can kiss that College Football Playoff bid goodbye.