MADISON, Wis. Wisconsin continued its in-season ascent with a 38-13 drubbing of Minnesota on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers have now won three straight Big Ten games and hold a three-game lead in the Leaders Division race.
Wisconsin dominated Minnesota on the ground, out-gaining the Gophers 337-96. And although the Badgers haven't yet played the meat of their conference schedule, they've won the games they were supposed to, setting themselves up for another trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship.
Here are five things we learned about Wisconsin from Saturday's game:
1. Paul Bunyan's Axe is staying in Madison for another year.
This group of Wisconsin players doesn't know anything aside from laying claim to the famous Axe. It was hardly in doubt on Saturday, as the Badgers pulled away in the second half.
Wisconsin now has beaten Minnesota nine straight times dating back to 2003. That matches the longest winning streak by either team in the 122-game series.
"It's a great feeling for us," said Badgers center Travis Frederick, a native of Sharon, Wis. "Not only as a football team but for the university itself, for the recruiting we have and also for the state of Wisconsin. As a homegrown Wisconsin person, you kind of feel that."
During Wisconsin's nine-game winning streak, the Badgers have outscored the Gophers by an average score of 39-23.
2. Montee Ball is going to break the NCAA touchdown record.
For a stretch during the early season, some wondered whether Badgers running back Montee Ball would have enough help in front of him to touch the career touchdown mark. But Ball has turned on the jets, rushing for 10 touchdowns in the first four Big Ten games, and the offensive line has come around as well.
On Saturday, Ball rushed for 166 yards and two touchdowns. With each score, Bucky Badger runs up the student section bleachers to plant a flag signifying how close Ball is to the record.
Ball now has 74 career touchdowns, trailing only Ricky Williams of Texas (75) and Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio) (78) on the all-time NCAA list. At the rate Ball is going, he could break the mark in two games against Ohio State. It would be a fitting way for Ball to end his career at Camp Randall Stadium because it represents the final home game of his career.
"Obviously I'm thinking about it," Ball said of the record following Saturday's game. "It's kind of hard not to with the flags and all that stuff they have in the stadium. I'm not cocky with it at all. (I'm) humble because my teammates helped me get me to that point."
3. Quarterback Joel Stave still has room to improve.
Stave has shown significant progress in each game he's started this season, but he took a couple steps back on Saturday. He finished the day with just 7 of 15 passes completed for 106 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions.
Stave appeared to wait too long in the pocket and underthrew his receivers on a couple of passes. He also took sacks that moved Wisconsin out of field goal range on two separate possessions.
Bielema said Stave needed to do a better job of getting rid of the ball under duress.
"There's one thing to try to create a play or try to stay alive," Bielema said. "But when you're outnumbered, when they're bringing one more than we can protect, the guys are covered up, get rid of the football. Live to play another day."
4. Kickoffs continue to be an issue.
It's almost become a merry-go-round of sorts when it comes to Wisconsin's kickers splitting kickoff duty.
Kyle French began the year handling kickoffs but booted kicks out of bounds in two straight games. Freshman Jack Russell stepped in nicely until Saturday's game, when he, too, knocked a kickoff out of bounds.
That put French back in on both kickoffs and field goal duty.
"I just do exactly what they tell me to do," French said. "Obviously Jack had his kickoff out of bounds. They asked me to step in, so I stepped in. I am happy that I got obviously both the field goal and the kickoff. I just wanted to have a great day today, especially after I had a very sub-par game against Purdue."
Bielema also opted not to attempt a 49-yard field goal with French during the game. Instead, the coach chose to punt in an effort to pin the Gophers inside the 20.
French said he lobbied to kick the field goal to no avail.
"I definitely knew I had the distance from a 49-yard field goal," he said. "I think we just wanted to pooch it, try and keep them in there a little deep. I believe we stopped them at the 13 in that situation. I can't complain. A win is a win and I'm ready to move on to next week."
5. Wisconsin's defense is playing at a championship level.
OK, the competition hasn't exactly represented the cream of the Big Ten crop in the last three weeks. But hey, the Big Ten is down this season, anyway, and Wisconsin's defense is stepping up to the challenge.
On Saturday, Wisconsin forced Minnesota to go three-and-out on seven of its 11 possessions. On the season, the Badgers have forced opponents to go three-and-out on 42 of 100 offensive possessions.
Linebacker Mike Taylor finished with a game-high 12 tackles, his fifth double-digit tackle game this season. Cornerback Devin Smith and linebacker Ethan Armstrong also recorded interceptions.
Wisconsin continued to lower its scoring defense average, which was 26th in the country (18.4 points per game). The Badgers also are in the top 30 in rushing defense and surrendered just 96 yards on the ground to the Gophers.
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