MINNEAPOLIS — For a decade now, Minnesota has been kicked around by Wisconsin, lending a rather anticlimactic air to one of the longest-running rivalries in the nation.
For the first time in a while, the Golden Gophers went toe to toe with the Badgers. And even though they failed to capture Paul Bunyan's Axe for the first time since 2003, they finally stood up for themselves after being bullied by their neighbors for so long.
James White rushed for 125 yards and one touchdown and No. 16 Wisconsin grinded out a 20-7 victory over Minnesota on Saturday.
"I think we're catching up," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "There's no doubt about that."
Aaron Hill returned an interception for a touchdown and David Cobb rushed for 68 yards for the Gophers (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten). But Philip Nelson completed just 7 of 23 passes for 83 yards and Minnesota couldn't get anything going against the Badgers (9-2, 6-1).
Chris Borland had 12 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble to tie the NCAA record for career fumbles forced with 14. Brendan Kelly had two sacks and the Badgers held an opponent under 10 points for the seventh time this season. Only Alabama has done it more.
"There was a definitely a lack of rhythm on our part," Nelson said. "Simply put, we didn't make enough plays as an offense. That just comes up to the players. That comes up to me. That comes up to everybody."
The Gophers were missing leading receiver Derrick Engel because of a knee injury, which allowed the Badgers to load up against Cobb and the running game.
Maxx Williams led the Gophers with just two catches for 31 yards, but he lost one of their three fumbles. Nelson had several passes dropped by open receivers and just plain missed a handful of others while being hounded by the Badgers.
Kill was quick to say that there are no moral victories, but he was clearly proud of how his young team played against Wisconsin, which has won six in a row following a loss to Ohio State on Sept. 28.
"I can live with a lot of things when you play your butt off," Kill said.
The Gophers defense certainly did that.
The Badgers steamrolled into TCF Bank Stadium after racking up a staggering 554 yards rushing against Indiana last week. White took the opening handoff for 49 yards, but the Gophers' defense stiffened after that. They held Wisconsin to 197 yards on the ground, more than 100 below their season average and forced coach Gary Andersen to use the passing game much more than he originally had planned.
Joel Stave was 16 for 26 for 127 yards with one touchdown and one interception for Wisconsin. Borland's strip of Cobb midway through the third quarter tied him with five other players for the FBS record for forced fumbles.
For the first time in recent memory, there was some hype surrounding this late-season meeting. The Gophers had reeled off four straight Big Ten victories for the first time since 1973 and entered the game brimming with confidence. A record crowd of 53,090 packed TCF Bank Stadium to watch the game, and the Gophers' defense kept them in the game.
Michael Amaefula hit Stave low just as he was throwing the ball and Hill stepped in and picked off the pass, returning it 39 yards to put the Gophers up 7-3.
But Nelson's fumble in Wisconsin territory led to White's touchdown that put the Badgers in front 10-7. Wisconsin started the third quarter with a 12-play, 83-yard drive that chewed up 7:05, culminating in a 2-yard TD from Stave to Jared Abbrederis for a 20-7 lead that knocked the wind out of a juiced up stadium.
"We had five or six chances," Nelson said, "and we just let it slip."
The Badgers' 10-game streak is the longest in the history of a rivalry that dates back to 1890, and that run that has clearly started to wear thin with the Gophers. After the Badgers grabbed the coveted axe and pretended to chop down one goal post, the team started to cross the field toward the other end.
"It's happened as long as I've been alive," Borland said. "You go to both goal posts. They kind of crashed our party, but that's all right, they should be mad."
The Gophers encircled the goal post in front of their student section and refused to let the Badgers get near it. There was some pushing and shoving, but the confrontation ended without incident.
"It's just a pride thing," Nelson said. "Nobody's going to come into our end zone and start chopping it down. That's just kind of standing up for ourselves."