MINNEAPOLIS — Scott Nelson was one of the final members of the University of Wisconsin football team to leave the field Saturday evening. There was mayhem all around the senior safety by that point, Minnesota students rushing the field from all directions and sprinting to get as close as they could to the prize the Golden Gophers just had won.
There was no good reason for Nelson to turn his head and take in the scene as he exited. But he did anyway because, well, this was his final moment in a rivalry that dates to 1890 and he had to mark it somehow. The sight was predictably painful for Nelson — the Badgers’ biggest rival parading around with Paul Bunyan’s Axe — so he shifted his focus back to the tunnel that would lead him to the visiting locker room at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Nelson disappeared into blackness, just as No. 18 UW’s hopes and dreams had done minutes earlier when the reality of a 23-13 loss to Minnesota had hit home for a group that entered the day with so much on the line.
UW’s seven-game winning streak went up in smoke and with it a chance to play for a Big Ten Conference championship next week in Indianapolis. That the ride ended at the hands of the Gophers, who had lost 16 of the previous 17 meetings with the Badgers, made it an even more difficult pill to swallow.
“It’s honestly the worst feeling in the world,” UW senior cornerback Caesar Williams said. “It just feels like a disgrace to the program for us to lose the Axe.”
Afterward, there was sadness in Badgers coach Paul Chryst’s voice and, if you looked closely, wetness in senior linebacker Jack Sanborn’s eyes. Senior cornerback Faion Hicks looked shell-shocked while waiting for his postgame media session to begin and senior tight end Jake Ferguson apparently had reached his pain threshold because he skipped out on a session with reporters after wrapping up a brief interview with the UW radio postgame show.
“Guys are hurting,” senior outside linebacker Noah Burks said. “We all feel pain because obviously we weren’t able to go and accomplish what we wanted to do this game.”
Or this season, for that matter. Remember three months ago when a senior-laden squad entered the season with massive goals after a disappointing 2020 campaign? Ferguson had spoken of a desire to “do something we’ve never done” and Sanborn talked about how these Badgers wanted to “make history at Wisconsin.” Another senior, defensive end Matt Henningsen, admitted how annoying it was to look at the façade on the east side of Camp Randall Stadium every day and see that the program’s last Big Ten championship came in 2012.
There was a theme of unfinished business and the Badgers still have a bunch of unchecked items on their list of goals 12 games later.
No College Football Playoff or Big Ten title, but worse yet no division title and, for the next 12 months, an empty spot where the Axe usually rests in the team’s trophy case.
“The biggest thing is that we lost that trophy, we lost that Axe,” Sanborn said. “Then you add the Big Ten championship on top of that, you add a bunch of goals on top of that and it just makes it that much tougher right now.”
What makes it even more difficult is this wasn’t a fluke. The Gophers were the better team Saturday, especially in the second half.
Minnesota had lost its chance at a Big Ten West Division title a day earlier when Iowa rallied to win at Nebraska, yet the Gophers still looked like they were the team that wanted this more — needed it more — than the Badgers.
It showed in the trenches, where Minnesota’s defensive line was relentless and consistently in UW tailback Braelon Allen’s face before he even had a chance to make a cut.
It also showed on the biggest play of the game, an interception on the third play from scrimmage in the second half. UW hadn’t played great to that point but led 10-6 at the half thanks to an interception return by Nelson that turned out to be the Badgers’ only touchdown of the game.
Graham Mertz dropped back and sent a ball toward the sidelines on third-and-7. It was a poorly placed throw, one of several on the day from a UW sophomore quarterback who regressed to first-half-of-the-season Graham Mertz after playing so well down the stretch. Still, it was a ball that could have resulted in a reception had a freshman cornerback (Justin Walley) not won a 50/50 battle with a sixth-year senior wide receiver (Kendric Pryor).
Walley wanted it more and got it. That will led to a turnover the Gophers converted into the go-ahead touchdown two plays later.
“Coming in here and losing that Axe, that kind of — not kind of — that hurts a lot,” Pryor said.
UW’s offense was awful and its special teams provided nothing in the way of splash plays. The defense was OK on a day the Badgers needed it to be great, with junior inside linebacker Leo Chenal nailing it when he said there were “too many mistakes and not enough playmaking.”
The Badgers were undisciplined in all three phases and at times incompetent. The same can be said about Chryst, who appeared to be waving the white towel with just more than four minutes remaining when he sent out the punt team on fourth-and-1 trailing by 10 points.
A false start saved Chryst some embarrassment because the offense came back out and the Badgers converted to move the chains. But it was clear he had messed up and he admitted as much afterward.
“Never should have been thinking punt,” he said. “Didn’t handle that well. Flat out.”
But it was that kind of day in what has been that kind of season for the Badgers. Chryst used the words “disappointed” or “disappointment” six times in his postgame news conference and those are pretty accurate terms to describe this 2021 campaign.
UW was bad in the first month of the season, resilient and back to its roots over the next seven weeks and rotten in the regular-season finale. Instead of preparing to play Michigan with a chance to end the program’s Big Ten title drought, Chryst should spend the next week or two thinking long and hard about making significant changes on his coaching staff and with an offense that has gone stale.
The Badgers will play in a bowl game, and they’ve earned that reward. But an 8-4 overall record and a 6-3 mark in Big Ten play wasn’t good enough for a team with this much experience. That business they talked about three months ago still is unfinished because UW went bankrupt against the team it hates the most.
Badgers fans on Twitter are livid after Wisconsin's Big Ten title chase ends with a loss at Minnesota
Take a hard look in the mirror
Expectations every year is that the Badger should win the West. 3 of the last 4 years they have not. They had a chance for a successful season after a 1-3 start, but that fell short with tonight’s loss. Chryst needs to re-evaluate the direction of the program.— Erik Grinde (@egrinde) November 28, 2021
Flaws on full display
As for the defense, it remains vulnerable to good quarterback play. The Wisconsin secondary is full of gritty, sound guys who are not elite athletes. Badgers’ pass rush can’t compensate for coverage limitations against good teams.— Joseph Britt (@Zathras3) November 28, 2021
Another one gone
Starts at the top
So many bad decisions. Kicking that FG down 7 in 4Q with a kicker who’s long is 43 yards. Has struggled all season with longer kicks. Outdoors, in the cold. He isn’t making a 48 yarder. Then the timeout, punt, false start, go for it on 4th down when trailing by 10 under 5mins 🤷♂️— DRich (@drich318318) November 28, 2021
Not so fast
His D has been exposed the last two weeks so maybe not— Fred Ehle (@FredEhle) November 28, 2021
Grass is always greener ...
Paul Chryst had gotta go— Greg Emmerich (@NRCoachEmmerich) November 28, 2021
Meh. Would’ve been much worse if we realistically had a chance for the CFP. This just prevented us from probably losing to Michigan next week.— Madtown Alum (@madtownalum) November 28, 2021
Far from the top
Don’t have to be elite to beat the Gophers though. This performance today was embarrassing putting it nicely— Eric Lowry (@EricL228) November 28, 2021
Falling short yet again
It's tough bc Chryst has a decent record, but not against ranked teams or big games. Lost twice to MN and can't even win BT West. I think Wisc ADs are fine with average seasons, but don't think Chyrst is the answer to win a Big Ten title. QB Coach/Playcaller that was worst part.— ChazB (@chazb33) November 28, 2021
Running into trouble
A banged-up, ineffective B. Allen really doomed the offense. Surprised they didn’t sub in Julius Davis for some fresh legs. Receivers dropped passes, got beat. Mertz still work in progress. Weren’t going to beat MI in any event.— Patrick G. (@Patrick34524185) November 28, 2021
This checks out
Ready for a new role
Badgers defense 7, Offense 6. Hand the keys to Jim Leonhard— Mitchell Skurzewski (@MSkurzewski) November 28, 2021
How low can he go?
They played jump around after the game. I hate pj fleck.— Tim (@AshBadg) November 28, 2021
Hearts not in it
From the players to the coaching, this was never a team playing for the Axe, let alone a Big Ten Championship Game. The most disappointing loss for Wisconsin under the leadership of Paul Chryst.— Jeff Ostach (@jeff_ostach) November 28, 2021
Tough to stomach
Straight up beaten in every facet of the game…Allen is clearly hurt, but too many players failed to make plays. Coaching was painful— Todd (@pilprin) November 28, 2021
Don't hold your breath
Barry out of retirement to coach.— Soflex Math (@chrisneumer) November 28, 2021
Looking lost out there
10 years ago, Paul was a creative football mind with a Badger offense that was balanced, efficient, and high scoring. The game has passed him by. His offense has gotten stale and predictable. Today it was painful to watch. Time to make Jim Leonhard our HC and hire a modern OC.— Bode (@NickBode41) November 28, 2021
There's one way to look at it
Getting embarrassed today, does avoid getting embarrassed next week.— Holiday (@holidaystyle300) November 28, 2021
In need of an overhaul
Coaching is horrible and QB is worse. They better give Hill a real shot next year as going nowhere with Mertz. Also really need to look at that OL. We used to always be good there, but not this year. D had the tipped ball pick 6 but did little else today. Bad play all around— Phil Leith (@phil_leith) November 28, 2021
Slipped through their fingers
This was a badly played game by the Badgers today. No ground game and no O line and no passing game spells loss big time. Disappointing loss considering our 7 game win streak But No axe, no B1G championship game but……a bowl game to b determined.— Paul Yochum'63 (@PaulYochum63) November 28, 2021
Missing in action
What a day for this team not to show up. Poor play on offense and defense.— Vickie Dahl (@ADPointerNation) November 28, 2021
Nothing new here
Same old story, played just well enough to have a meaningful game today but laid that same egg on the field… no imagination in this team, don’t have the players? Could be but use what ya got and create a game plan exposes Mn flaws, they have them!— B'ing Bri 🇺🇸🍻🧀 (@b_newmiller) November 28, 2021
Taking 11 steps back
Felt like first losses of the season...confusing play calling, OL not good enough, etc. Continued concerns with Chryst management and inability to adapt in game.— Jeremy Wojtecki (@jwojPAC) November 28, 2021
Also, attrition finally caught up in the RB room.
If not now, when?
I think it’s time to have a serious discussion about PC. Offense is stale and Mertz hasn’t progressed at all since he’s been here. Very disappointing loss today.— Dan Buhler (@FBuhlersDayOff) November 28, 2021
All quiet ... for now
I read all the comments below. Chryst termination will not happen until after next year. Why? Our road schedule in 2022 is difficult. Could end up 6-6 or 7-5 only because we have 3 cupcakes at home.— Steven Smith (@SteveSUWbba) November 28, 2021
One to forget
One of the more disappointing, lethargic, uninspired losses of the Chryst era, with a division title up for grabs— Sam Oleson (@sam_olesonFDL) November 28, 2021
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org.