- Wisconsin lost to Minnesota for the first time since 2003, a fitting ending to the most disappointing regular season in all of college football.
Wisconsin capped off its most disappointing season in recent memory with another flat performance, this time in a loss to a mediocre Minnesota team, which got its sixth win Saturday to become bowl eligible. It was a fitting ending after the Badgers, once playoff contenders, fell to 7-5 and played unevenly on both sides of the ball. In the end, Wisconsin’s off year created a vacuum in the already weak Big Ten West, ushering Northwestern to the conference title game and ultimately putting a damper on the conference’s playoff hopes.
In fact, Wisconsin’s season may be partially responsible for the ripple effect that may keep the Big Ten out of the final four; Ohio State, the other division champion, had a weaker resume than Michigan going into Saturday, and whatever happens against Northwestern next week won’t help enhance the Buckeyes’ playoff chances one bit.
But back to Madison, where Wisconsin ceded Paul Bunyan’s Axe to Minnesota for the first time since 2003. The Badgers lost the way they’ve disappointed all year: with far too many turnovers and a relatively porous defense—at least by Wisconsin’s standards. Against Minnesota, quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw for two touchdown passes to go along with three interceptions—all of which set up Golden Gophers scoring drives. And when Wisconsin didn’t give up the ball, it wasn’t able to do much, regardless; the Badgers had just seven points until well within the game’s final three minutes.
It was senior day in Madison, and the players honored went 41-11 over their four-year careers, a remarkable record that stood in stark contrast to the football played Saturday—and for most of 2018 in Wisconsin. The elite Badgers teams of recent years have never been known for chewing up yard upon yard of offense, but they’ve gotten by with a speedy running back and lockdown defenses. This year, sophomore rusher Jonathan Taylor has had a fine season (he finished the regular season with an impressive 1,989 yards), but there hasn’t been enough around him to sustain any kind of constant attack, and Hornibrook never overcame the turnovers that have dogged him since his first start. He’s also suffered from concussions, struggling to establish any kind of rhythm late in the year.
On defense, Wisconsin was in moments unrecognizable. In past seasons, the Badgers been unshakeable against the run and strong against the pass; this year, they posted the No. 43 unit overall going into Saturday’s game, allowing opponents to average 361.8 yards. Against the run, they were the No. 52 unit, almost unthinkable before the season; opponents averaged 154.0 yards this year. Minnesota was able to put up 325 yards of total offense, convert all three fourth downs it attempted and rush for 201 yards, holding the ball for more than 35 minutes of game clock.
Wisconsin will have to take a close look at its roster and approach in the offseason, and as it re-evaluates and regroups, a new order in the Big Ten West may be forming. P.J. Fleck in his second year won a rivalry that Minnesota’s four previous coaches never could. Jeff Brohm has made Purdue interesting, if not quite a sustained winner. Northwestern is methodically good, if not elite. The Badgers have some competition, and instead of looking to the East’s more traditionally loaded teams as their only obstacle, it’s time for them to start to consider their own side of the conference bracket.