MINNEAPOLIS -- All season, Paul Chryst has implored his Wisconsin players to live in the moment, and they’ve listened. The biggest moment in recent program history is now upon them.
Wisconsin finally has the chance to move from the ranks of the very good and the remarkably consistent to the sport’s top level. The Badgers improved to 12-0 for the first time in team history after a 31-0 victory over Minnesota, retaining Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 14th consecutive season. After completing Big Ten play unbeaten for the first time since 1912, when it played just five league games, Wisconsin has one more tree to chop down. It's a big one: the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Minnesota posed little threat, especially to the nation’s top defense, which feasted on a one-dimensional offense that couldn’t score last week against Northwestern and didn’t record a first down until the final minute of the first half Saturday. The Gophers missed two field goals and were shut out for the second straight game against the fast, swarming, unrelenting Badgers.
It became clear early that the outcome never would be in doubt, but this presented an important opportunity to peak before Ohio State. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook did just that, throwing in rhythm throughout the game in arguably his best performance of the season.
Hornibrook, who has held back Wisconsin’s offense with miscues at times this season, was often the primary reason for the unit’s success Saturday. He made confident throws in the red zone and showed both patience and decisiveness in the pocket. The sophomore completed 15 of 19 passes for 151 yards with three touchdowns and, of more importance, no picks for the first time in Big Ten play. His best throw came in the third quarter when, under pressure, he lofted a 31-yard pass near the sideline where only teammate Kendric Pryor could get to it.
About the only negative for Wisconsin came in the second quarter when running back Jonathan Taylor lost a fumble for the fifth time this season. Taylor, as usual, redeemed himself with a 53-yard touchdown and another 100-yard day, but ball security will be critical for Wisconsin’s young backfield against Ohio State, which has recovered eight fumbles this season.
But if Wisconsin wins its first Big Ten title since 2012 and punches its first playoff ticket, it will do so with defense. The Badgers built a 28-7 lead against Penn State in last year’s league title game but couldn’t stop Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions in the second half, allowing 24 points in a 38-31 loss. While Ohio State poses a different test, especially with a hobbled J.T. Barrett at quarterback, Wisconsin’s defense will be motivated. Outside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly continued to trigger the Badgers, as Edwards had 3.5 tackles for loss and Connelly had a pair of sacks.
Wisconsin became the eighth Big Ten team in the modern era to start 12-0 and the fifth different team to do so since 1994. Minnesota finished 5-7 under first-year coach P.J. Fleck, who is bringing excitement to the program but must solve issues in the passing game next fall.