Wisconsin football: Badgers remain perfect, in the running for College Football Playoff
MINNEAPOLIS — No team was going to prevent Wisconsin from keeping its perfect season intact Saturday and staying alive in the chase for a spot in the College Football Playoff, particularly not rival Minnesota.
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, arguably the best coach/showman in the country, found out at TCF Bank Stadium his team lacks the personnel on offense and defense to go toe-to-toe with UW.
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The Big Ten West Division title belongs to UW. Paul Bunyan's Axe is staying in Madison. And most important, UW is playing solid football and its players have shown an impressive ability to focus on the game at hand each week and block out the noise about the playoffs.
"Really proud of this team today and what they did this week," said UW coach Paul Chryst, whose record is 22-4 in Big Ten play and 33-6 overall in three seasons at UW. "It means a lot to win this game and to leave the field with the Axe. Our seniors and upperclassmen did a great job of leading the way during the week, with preparation and making sure everyone understood the importance of this game.
On, WWWWWWWWWWWWisconsin! pic.twitter.com/VGB5A9axTZ— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) November 25, 2017
"I appreciate what this group has done, I want them to enjoy it tonight, and tomorrow we'll get ready for the Big Ten Championship game."
UW (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten) completed the best regular season in program history with another victory over its No. 1 rival.
Only one other UW team won 12 games in a season. That came in 2006, when then-rookie coach Bret Bielema guided UW to a 7-1 mark in the Big Ten and a 12-1 mark overall. UW capped that season with a 17-14 victory over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl.
UW's victory Saturday, coupled with losses by No. 1 Alabama on Saturday and by No. 2 Miami on Friday should allow the fifth-ranked Badgers to move up into the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings.
Those rankings will be revealed at 6 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.
UW probably can secure a berth in the playoff with a victory over No. 9 Ohio State (10-2, 8-1) in the Big Ten title game Saturday in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes closed the regular season with a 31-20 victory over Michigan.
Although starting quarterback J.T Barrett left the game in the second half with a knee injury, he said he expected to be ready to face UW. Barrett rushed for 92 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 226 yards and a touchdown in the Buckeyes' 30-23 overtime victory over UW last season.
Minnesota finished Year 1 under Fleck at 2-7 in the Big Ten and 5-7 overall.
"You have to execute against a top-five team when you have opportunities," Fleck said. "We just did not do that."
UW's defense, among the stingiest in the nation this season, was again impenetrable.
Minnesota went without a first down until 41 seconds left in the first half, when tailback Rodney Smith broke off a 25-yard run.
UW held a 17-0 lead at that point and had limited Minnesota to 13 yards on 15 plays.
Minnesota's lone productive drive of the half ended with Emmit Carpenter missing a 46-yard field goal on the final play of the half. Carpenter missed a 48-yard attempt in the second half.
The Gophers finished converted just 3 of 13 third-down chances and finished with eight first downs, 93 rushing yards on 39 attempts and 133 total yards on 48 plays, an average of 2.8 yards per play.
Quarterback Demry Croft completed 3 of 9 passes for 40 yards.
"They are so talented up front," Fleck said of UW's defense.
Hornibrook completed 13 of 17 attempts for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the opening half. He finished 15 of 19 (78.9%) 151 yards and three touchdowns.
He was again sharp on third downs, connecting on 4 of 7 attempts for 31 yards and four first downs, including two touchdowns.
"He was super sharp, didn't think twice about stuff," left tackle Michael Deiter said. "And I think we did a good job of protecting him for the most part.
"And that stuff goes hand in hand. When he is clean he is going to make good decisions."
Freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor entered the game with 1,657 yards, the No. 7 mark all-time for FBS freshmen.
He lost a fumble in the second quarter but after being allowed to watch for a few series came back strong in the second half. Taylor rushed 20 times for 149 yards and a touchdown, a 53-yarder on the first play of the final quarter, to push his season total to 1,806 yards. That is the No. 3 mark for FBS freshmen, behind Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson (1,925 yards) and UW's Ron Dayne (1,863).
With Hornibrook on the mark, Taylor breaking loose in the second half and UW's defense limiting Minnesota's pedestrian offense to three plays on six of 10 series, the Badgers rolled to their 14th consecutive victory over Minnesota.
"When your offense is clicking and, especially the way we play defense," senior cornerback Derrick Tindal said, "there's no stopping us, I feel."