MADISON, Wis. (AP) — With Paul Bunyan’s Axe back in his team’s possession for another year, Melvin Gordon jumped for joy in the locker room after a victory over a bitter Big Ten rival.
A Wisconsin win Saturday night to claim a berth in next week’s league championship game sure made it easier for Gordon to withstand any pain from a sore right ankle.
Gordon ran for 151 yards and accounted for two scores, Joel Stave threw for 215 yards and two touchdown passes and the 14th-ranked Badgers rallied from a two-touchdown deficit to beat No. 22 Minnesota 34-24 to take the West Division title.
“Melvin, he looked great. He was jumping around pretty good there in the locker room,” coach Gary Andersen said. “He should be just fine.”
Next stop: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis next week to play Ohio State for the Big Ten title.
It was not easy. Physical 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.
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.
“We’ll bounce back but there aren’t any of (us) happy about the axe,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said.
Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1) completed another rally from an early hole. Just two weeks ago, the Badgers fell behind early to Nebraska before storming back for a big victory.
“Wow, so proud of the kids when adversity strikes just like they have all year long,” Andersen said.
This one 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 the field 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.
Gordon gave no indication that he had played his last game at Camp Randall, though he did want to take one carry with the axe.
“If you saw me, I was in the student section, I was everywhere. I threw my helmet. I was so excited. I grabbed the axe … It was supposed to be for seniors only, but I didn’t care,” Gordon said. “I tried to soak it all in.”
Gordon set a Big Ten single-season rushing record on his first attempt after coming in tied with former Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne at 2,109 yards.
Gordon had lots of help on Saturday night.
Alex Erickson had a career-high 160 yards on five catches, including a career-long 70-yarder from Stave.
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 at 20-17.
Clement finished with 89 yards on seven carries.
Safety Michael Caputo had 12 tackles and recovered a fumble by Cobb at the Wisconsin 31 with 18 seconds left in the second quarter. The Badgers needed just two completions to Erickson to drive 49 yards to set up Rafael Gaglianone’s 38-yard field goal just before halftime to draw within 17-13.
Senior inside linebacker Marcus Trotter finished with a career-best 14 tackles in his last home game.
Cobb was held to 23 yards on nine carries in the second half, though just having him on the field was a plus for Minnesota given he was coming off a hamstring injury.
“It was unbelievable for the situation he was in,” Kill said. “What he did today you haven’t seen very often.”
Minnesota’s milestone regular season ended in disappointment. They were hoping to go 6-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1973.
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.
Minnesota lost for the first time in Kill’s four-year tenure after leading at the half, after going 20-0.
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