MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Playing in front of a hostile crowd, Minnesota pieced together a nearly-flawless opening 25 minutes against its bitter Big Ten rival.
It’s the rest of the game that will haunt the 22nd-ranked Golden Gophers in a 34-24 loss to No. 14 Wisconsin.
Melvin Gordon ran for 151 yards and accounted for two scores, and the Badgers rallied from an early two-touchdown deficit to earn a trip to the conference championship game.
Wisconsin retained Paul Bunyan’s Axe for an 11th straight year. This loss will hurt more because Minnesota was so close to capping a memorable regular season with a chance to face Ohio State for the Big Ten title.
“We’ll bounce back but there aren’t any of (us) happy about the axe,” coach Jerry Kill said.
Minnesota (8-4, 5-3) let a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter slip away. David Cobb ran for 118 yards on 25 carries, including a 40-yard score.
Having Cobb was a huge boost after the Gophers weren’t sure if he would be able to bounce back from a hamstring injury suffered in last week’s 28-24 win over Nebraska.
“Growing up this is something you dream about. I was waiting all season, all of my life to play in a game like this,” Cobb said. “If it was one play or 130 plays I was going to play.”
Cobb, a senior, was so questionable for the game that he wasn’t even listed on the pregame depth chart. He left Madison having set a single-season rushing record after coming into the night 34 yards shy of Laurence Maroney’s mark of 1,464 yards in 2005.
But Cobb was also charged with a fumble on what appeared to be a sloppy handoff with 18 seconds left in the second quarter at the Wisconsin 31.
The Badgers drove 49 yards on two completions by Joel Stave to receiver Alex Erickson to set up a 38-yard field goal just before time expired in the half to draw within 17-13.
That followed a 4-yard touchdown pass from Stave to Gordon with 4:39 left.
The fumbled turned into a huge momentum shift in the game.
“You could tell when they went down and kicked that field goal,” Kill said.
Stave threw for 215 yards, including a career-best 160 to receiver Erickson. Stave’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Robert Wheelwright with 4:41 left in the game gave the Badgers (10-2, 7-1) a 10-point lead, and Wisconsin’s defense held from there.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner ran for 54 yards and two scores on 14 carries. His 2-yard touchdown run with 7:32 left got the Gophers within 27-24, but Wisconsin answered right back with Wheelwright’s touchdown catch.
“Wow, so proud of the kids when adversity strikes just like they have all year long,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said.
Just two weeks ago, the Badgers fell behind early to Nebraska before storming back for a big victory.
This win was even more important. The Midwest neighbors have a not-so-friendly rivalry, and a few Badgers hobbled off to the sideline on a chippy night.
Gordon limped off with 3:12 left in the game, favoring his right ankle.
“Mel-vin Gor-don! Mel-vin Gor-don!” adoring fans at Camp Randall Stadium chanted for their Heisman contender. He had his right ankle taped up and took the field for the end-of-game kneel-down after Minnesota tossed four incompletions on its final desperate drive.
There was no way that Gordon was going to miss the end of what was likely his final home game. A future in the NFL likely awaits the junior running back.
“I think tomorrow I’m going to be pretty sore. Those guys out there were doing their thing,” Gordon said.
Gordon set a Big Ten single-season rushing record on his first carry after coming in tied with former Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne at 2,109 yards.
Gordon had lots of help on Saturday night.
Backup running back Corey Clement, playing with a right shoulder injury, scored on a 28-yard run on his first carry with 6:20 left in the third quarter to give the Badgers their first lead of the night 20-17.
Minnesota lost for the first time in Kill’s four-year tenure after leading at the half, after going 20-0.