Wisconsin can make its reservations for Indianapolis. The No. 14 Badgers took care of business and beat No. 18 Minnesota 34-24 to clinch a spot in the Big Ten title game opposite Ohio State. And after the Buckeyes’ game on Saturday, Wisconsin might be an even bigger threat for the conference title than previously expected.
Minnesota, which had lost 10 straight games to Wisconsin and 15 of its last 17, hadn’t won in Madison since 1994. But it was obvious the Gophers weren’t intimidated. They were also playing for a spot in the conference title game, and they took a 17-3 lead over the Badgers early in the second quarter on a Ryan Santoso field goal.
Wisconsin answered with a touchdown catch from Melvin Gordon and a field goal before the half to cut Minnesota’s lead to 17-12. Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate, was overshadowed in the first half by Gophers’ running back David Cobb. Cobb had 95 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, while Gordon, who has rushed for more than 2,000 yards already this season, managed just 55 yards on 14 rushes.
But it was another running back who pushed the Badgers ahead in the third quarter. Corey Clement ran in a 28-yard score midway through the third quarter to give Wisconsin its first lead, 20-17. Gordon punched in another touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and the Badgers stayed in control.
Wisconsin hasn’t gotten much respect this season, but there’s a reason for that. It dropped a season-opening game to LSU before losing to Northwestern, 20-14, on Oct. 4. The Badgers didn’t look much like conference contenders. But they’ve won their final seven games just as Gordon has emerged as a Heisman threat. Not surprisingly, he’s averaged 198 rushing yards during Wisconsin’s seven-game winning streak.
But Saturday's news concerning Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett might be the more pivotal variable of Wisconsin’s future. Barrett fractured his ankle in the Buckeyes' 42-28 win over Michigan and will miss the rest of the season. He’d blossomed into a productive passer in his first year stepping in for an injured Braxton Miller, having already set school records for total yards (3,772), passing touchdowns (34) and total touchdowns (45). Sophomore backup Cardale Jones will start in place of Barrett, but there won’t be anything easy about starting his first career game in the conference championship.
If Wisconsin wins the Big Ten title, does it have a case for a playoff berth? There's no chance. Its loss to Northwestern is hard to defend, and the Big Ten conference schedule doesn’t do the Badgers any favors. But Wisconsin didn’t look like a conference contender when it left its opening loss to LSU. That’s all changed in three months. Now we’ll see if the Badgers can complete the ride.