Everything Wisconsin's football team hoped for seemed to fall perfectly into place on Saturday. The Badgers dominated Minnesota, 42-13, at TCF Bank Stadium and received all the help they needed in the race to climb back atop the Leaders Division in the Big Ten.
Losses by Penn State and Ohio State now mean that Wisconsin controls its own fate with two regular-season games remaining. Win those games, and the Badgers (8-2, 4-2) are headed to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.
Wisconsin thoroughly outplayed Minnesota in all facets -- except special teams -- to win its eighth straight game in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe.
Handing out grades from Wisconsin's performance:
Rushing offense: A
For the second straight week, the Badgers seemingly could do no wrong offensively. The success of the running game was vital in setting up quarterback Russell Wilson's stellar passing day.
Wisconsin ran the ball 45 times for 283 yards, an average of 6.3 yards per carry. And once again, running back Montee Ball was at the forefront of the attack.
Ball gained 166 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns and added a five-yard receiving touchdown. He has scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season and now has 27 touchdowns scored. That number is the Wisconsin and Big Ten single-season record.
Ball reached the 100-yard mark for the sixth time this season and the 12th time in his career and is averaging 147 yards per game in Big Ten play.
James White, who has been inconsistent while taking a backseat to Ball this season, added 87 yards rushing on 14 carries.
One question mark moving forward could be the availability of center Peter Konz, one of the big boys up front clearing the way for Ball and White. He injured his ankle during Saturday's game and did not return. Ryan Groy, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound sophomore from Middleton, Wis., took his place and could be called upon in future games to contribute on the offensive line.
Passing offense: A
For those curious as to how quarterback Russell Wilson would respond following back-to-back devastating last-minute losses, here's your answer: Superbly.
Wilson was nearly perfect on Saturday, finishing the game completing 16 of 17 passes for 178 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Wilson completed his first 16 passes, and his only incompletion was on a deep ball to wide receiver Nick Toon down the middle of the field that was broken up at the last second.
In the past two games, Wilson has now completed 31 of 37 passes for 383 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. This season, he is 160 for 218 with 2,416 yards passing, a school-record 25 touchdowns and three interceptions.
Wilson has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 34 straight games, two shy of the NCAA record, held by Texas Tech's Graham Harrell. He's also on pace to become just the fourth quarterback in Big Ten history to throw at least 30 touchdowns in a season.
The incredible statistics could go on, but we'll just stop there for now. Simply put, he was phenomenal on Saturday.
Rushing defense: A
There was some concern on Wisconsin's end that Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray's athleticism might hurt the Badgers' defense in the running game. For the most part on Saturday, he was contained.
Gray finished with 68 yards rushing, but it took him 19 carries to get there. Gray's ability to scramble had hurt both Iowa and Michigan State in previous weeks. Wisconsin made sure he wasn't a factor on Saturday.
Other than Gray, the Gophers' gained just 37 yards on the ground, and five of them came on a fake field goal run from the kicker. In total, Minnesota rushed for 105 yards, representing Wisconsin's best performance in Big Ten play.
Passing defense: A
If Wisconsin's rushing defense was good, the Badgers' passing defense was even better.
Gray completed 6 of 14 pass attempts for a mere 51 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight, who caught three touchdown passes one week earlier against Michigan State, was held to 34 yards receiving.
Badgers cornerback Antonio Fenelus recorded his third interception of the season and the eighth of his career.
As a unit, Wisconsin's defense is allowing 146 yards passing per game. That number represents the second-best mark in the country, trailing only Alabama's 130 yards per game.
Special teams: D
The only thing keeping Wisconsin from acing its performance against Minnesota was its inability to execute on special teams. Again.
Both of Minnesota's touchdowns came on special teams plays. The first was a five-yard fake field goal run from kicker Jordan Wettstein that trimmed the deficit to 21-6 in the second quarter.
The second touchdown was a 96-yard runback from Duane Bennett to open the second half, which brought Minnesota to within 28-13.
The Badgers shouldn't be faulted terribly on the fake field goal because that's not something that occurs often during the season. But the kickoff return is simply inexcusable.
Two weeks ago, Ohio State returned a kickoff 42 yards to midfield, which set up the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds remaining.
Last week, Wisconsin made Purdue return man Raheem Mostert look like the second coming of Devin Hester. Mostert broke Purdue's 42-year-old record for total kick return average. He brought back five kicks for 206 yards.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema has said he would change personnel to fit the schemes on special teams, but that doesn't seem to be working. Perhaps his teams should dribble the kickoffs to avoid long runbacks in the future.
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