MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Whether the distraction was out-of-town scores, remarkable statistics or long-standing records, Wisconsin refused to lose focus.
That perspective has kept the Badgers in position to win the Big Ten despite consecutive crushing losses last month.
Montee Ball set the conference’s single-season touchdown record and 16th-ranked Wisconsin trampled Minnesota 42-13 on Saturday to keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the eighth straight year.
“Back in the driver’s seat now. We control our own fate,” Ball said.
Russell Wilson had a season-high four touchdown passes. He was on target with every throw and every decision, connecting on all but his last pass, a deep ball that Nick Toon had in his hands but let slip out when he hit the turf hard midway through the third quarter.
Toon finished with eight catches for 100 yards and two scores, and Wilson went 16 for 17 for 178 yards.
“I messed it up for him, but nobody’s perfect,” Toon said, smiling.
The Badgers outgained the Gophers in total yards 461-156 and had 29 first downs to their rival’s nine on an unseasonably warm afternoon with a kickoff temperature in the low 60s. Wisconsin, which lead the FBS level in red zone scoring, has reached the end zone 45 times in 52 trips inside the 20-yard line this season.
Yes, it was an ideal day all around for the Badgers (8-2, 4-2).
They have two blemishes on their record — last-second defeats at Michigan State and Ohio State — that ended their national championship chase, but thanks to losses Saturday by Leaders Division foes Penn State and Ohio State they can reach the Big Ten title game. They need to win at Illinois next week and beat the Nittany Lions on Nov. 26.
Coach Bret Bielema didn’t want his players’ minds to stray, so he didn’t share the results until afterward.
“We have to concentrate on being in the moment. That’s the way we will do it,” Bielema said.
Well, some of them sneaked a peek at the scoreboard during the game, but that didn’t seem to matter.
“I was like, ‘Oh, cool.’ I didn’t really pay attention. We had to take care of business here,” right guard Kevin Zeitler said.
Wilson had the same attitude. He said he barely noticed he didn’t have an incompletion after halftime.
“You just want to stay in the now. That’s what I talk about all the time. You’ve just got to have amnesia, no matter how great things are going or how bad things are going,” Wilson said.
Then there was Ball, who found plenty of gaping holes behind that gargantuan, Wisconsin-born offensive line and gained 166 yards on 23 carries. He acknowledged his realization that the record was in reach.
When Ball crossed the goal line for his third touchdown — he ran for two and caught one pass for a score — of the day, he gripped the ball tightly and carried the souvenir to the sideline to thank his blockers.
“I usually don’t do that, but something I really pride myself on is working hard, and I think that’s what that record stands for, just finishing and working extremely hard,” Ball said.
In 10 games, Ball has 27 total touchdowns. The previous Big Ten mark was shared previously by Pete Johnson (Ohio State, 1975), Anthony Thompson (Indiana, 1988) and Ki-Jana Carter (Penn State, 1994). Ball is 12 scores behind Barry Sanders’ NCAA record.
The Gophers (2-8, 1-5) scored twice on special teams, a 5-yard run by kicker Jordan Wettstein on a fake field goal and a 96-yard return of the second half kickoff by Duane Bennett, but they were dominated on both sides of the ball all day.
The yardage at the end of the first quarter was 189 for Wisconsin and minus-1 for Minnesota.
“It wasn’t like they did anything that was big trickery,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “They just out-executed us.”
MarQueis Gray, after his two best games of the season, missed a wide-open John Rabe with a floating pass in the second quarter that was intercepted at the Wisconsin 22 and turned by Wilson into a five-play, 78-yard touchdown march in the closing minutes of the half.
Gray looked gimpy when he scrambled — Kill said he had a bad back — and also undoubtedly had a lot on his mind, as a new father. His girlfriend gave birth to twin boys on Friday. Gray finished 6 for 14 for 51 yards and ran 19 times for 68 yards.
“They didn’t do anything we didn’t prepare for. They were just the better team,” Gray said.
The Gophers were going to need some good luck to keep this game close, given the discrepancy in talent, but they didn’t get much of that.
Dan Orseske’s punt later in the first quarter bounced backward and netted just 4 yards, setting up Wisconsin for an easy score on a shortened field. Then after Wettstein — the walk-on who didn’t even play for his high school team in DePere, Wis. — caught a slick between-the-legs lateral from holder Adam Lueck and slipped out of a tackle near the sideline to plunge into the end zone, he pulled the extra point wide left.
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)