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Game recap: Wisconsin loses at home to Minnesota 23-16

Wisconsin loses to the Minnesota Gophers in back-to-back years for the first time in nearly 30 years.
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The Wisconsin Badgers (6-6 overall, 4-5 B1G) came into Saturday's matchup against the Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4 overall, 5-4 B1G) looking to reclaim Paul Bunyan's Axe in the longest-running rivalry in college football. 

The game did not go according to plan for the Badgers though, as Minnesota backup quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis lead the Gophers to a 23-16 win inside Camp Randall Stadium. 

Here is a breakdown of Wisconsin's 7-point loss to Minnesota.

Game Recap

After winning the opening coin toss, the Wisconsin Badgers opted to take the ball. The decision paid off for Jim Leonhard and the Badgers, as Graham Mertz and Chez Mellusi helped guide the offense down the field. The 11-play drive would eventually stall out in the red zone, and Nate Van Zelst would give Wisconsin a 3-0 lead with a 40-yard field goal. 

The Golden Gophers would respond with a 10-play drive of their own, as Minnesota quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis carved through Wisconsin's defense with 41 yards passing and a 23-yard run. The freshman quarterback threw a 6-yard touchdown to Daniel Jackson to give Minnesota a 7-3 lead with 3:45 remaining in the first quarter. 

After a quick three-and-out by Graham Mertz and the Wisconsin offense, Minnesota got back in business. Athan Kaliakmanis began the drive with a big 42-yard completion to Dylan Wright over cornerback Jay Shaw to set the Gophers up in scoring position once again. The Wisconsin defense would come up with a huge fourth-down stop at the 11-yard line on fourth and one to end the Minnesota drive and swing momentum. 

On the next drive, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz would help engineer a 65-yard drive, including a 25-yard completion to Keontez Lewis on third and long. Three straight runs in the red zone would leave the Badgers with fourth and one. Interim head coach Jim Leonhard chose to turn to kicker Nate Van Zelst, who connected on his second field goal of the day, a 43-yarder to trim Minnesota's lead to 7-6 with 8:51 left in the first half. 

On the next two drives, neither team could generate much. The Gophers went three and out, while the Badgers managed a first down but chose to punt on fourth and one in their own territory. 

Following a Keeanu Benton sack on the first play of the next Minnesota drive, the Gophers would proceed to march down the field with Athan Kaliakmanis hitting Daniel Jackson for a 26-yard completion, and Mo Ibrahim finding some open running lanes. Wisconsin's defense would ultimately come up with a third down stop inside the 10-yard line to force a Minnesota field goal. Matthew Trickett would boot it through the uprights to give the Gophers a 10-6 advantage at halftime. 

Coming out of the break, the Badgers would manage to come up with a third-down incompletion early in the opening drive of the half. However, C.J. Goetz was penalized for roughing the passer to extend the drive for Minnesota. Following the penalty and a 20-yard completion from Athan Kaliakmanis to Brevyn Spann-Ford, the Wisconsin defense would come up with another third down stop to bring up fourth and two at the 27-yard line. Despite a 5-yard false start penalty, Minnesota kicker Matthew Trickett would connect on a 50-yard field goal to give the Gophers a 7-point lead. 

The Badgers would respond with a field goal drive of their own on the next possession after Graham Mertz connected on a pair of pretty throws to Chimere Dike and Dean Engram, but then missed a wide-open seam route by Jack Eschenbach in the red zone. Nate Van Zelst made his third field goal of the game from 36 yards out to make the score 13-9. 

A huge special teams play by Wisconsin linebacker Tate Grass would force the Gophers to start the next drive at their own 12-yard line, and the defense answered with a crucial three-and-out to give the Badgers the ball back near midfield with 6:21 remaining in the third quarter. 

Quarterback Graham Mertz would help dig Wisconsin out of a first and 25 hole after a 15-yard clipping penalty with a pair of throws to Chimere Dike and Isaac Guerendo. From there, a pretty play-action pass from Mertz to Jackson Acker of 28 yards would set the Badgers up in the red zone, and Chimere Dike would do the rest on a 9-yard reverse run to give Wisconsin a 16-13 lead. Graham Mertz threw a crucial block on the touchdown run.

On the next two drives, Wisconsin and Minnesota would trade three-and-outs to close out the third quarter. 

A pair of sacks by Wisconsin defenders James Thompson Jr. and Darryl Peterson would end another Minnesota drive to begin the fourth quarter, as both young players got into the backfield to bring up fourth and 22. 

Following a quick three-and-out by the Wisconsin offense, Minnesota would get into scoring position thanks to a beautiful 34-yard reception by Daniel Jackson on the sideline. The Wisconsin defense would manage to hold the Gophers to just a field goal after the big play, as Alexander Smith batted a third-down throw away to bring out Matthew Trickett for a 27-yard field goal make. The made kick would tie the game up at 16 points apiece with just under eight minutes remaining in the game. 

The Badgers wouldn't muster a first down on their next drive, once again resulting in an Andy Vujnovich punt. The Gophers would respond with a six-play, 71-yard touchdown drive orchestrated by quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis. The freshman signal-caller found Daniel Jackson for a 16-yard gain on play action and then hit Le'meke Brockington in stride for a 45-yard touchdown on a shallow post route and he outraced the Wisconsin defense for a 23-16 lead with 3:40 remaining in the game. 

Looking to pull the Badgers back in the game, after missing Chimere Dike on an easy out-route that would have gotten the first down, Graham Mertz went deep to Dike on third down but was intercepted. Minnesota defensive back Justin Walley was there for the interception and returned it 20 yards to move the Gophers into Wisconsin territory. 

Following a big defensive stop by Wisconsin, the Badgers would be forced to turn to backup quarterback Chase Wolf after Graham Mertz went down with an injury. 

Wolf would get the Badgers down to the five-yard line, but four-straight penalties by the offense would back Wisconsin up to the 30-yard line as the Badgers melted down when it mattered most. From there, the Badgers would fail to reach the end zone to secure the 23-16 win for Minnesota. 

Players of the game

  • Maema Njongmeta (Wisconsin)

Wisconsin's leading tackler on the season once again came up big on Saturday. Maema Njongmeta led the team with 12 total tackles, and he got into the backfield on multiple occasions. Njongmeta finished with half a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss, and also provided a QB hurry to help lead the Badgers' defensive effort. 

  • Nate Van Zelst (Wisconsin)

Kicking the ball in windy conditions, Nate Van Zelst made the most of his opportunities on Saturday. The walk-on out of Illinois hit all three of his field goal attempts, going a perfect 3-of-3 with makes from 36, 40, and 43 on the day. 

With Wisconsin's offense sputtering in the red zone on multiple drives, Van Zelst came up big to make sure that the Badgers came away with points. 

  • Daniel Jackson (Minnesota)

Minnesota wide receiver Daniel Jackson and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford each had big games for the Gophers. While Spann-Ford finished with more yards, Jackson had a first-quarter touchdown grab and also had an amazing 34-yard catch on the sideline to set up a Minnesota scoring drive. Jackson finished the game with five receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown. 

  • Athan Kaliakmanis (Minnesota)

With Tanner Morgan unable to play, Minnesota turned to redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis to start the game. The young signal-caller played extremely well against Wisconsin, going 8-of-13 for 123 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

The dual-threat quarterback made several big plays to extend drives for the Gophers and ultimately completed 66% of his throws for 319 total passing yards and two scores in the game. 

Photos of the game

Up next

With the Badgers eliminated from potentially going to the Big Ten Championship, Wisconsin now awaits to see what bowl game they will attend. Expect an announcement in the near future about the head coaching vacancy as well. 

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