Wisconsin Badgers vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Complete Game Preview
This time, when the No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers have their 123rd meeting with the No. 25 Minnesota Golden Gophers, a lot more than bragging rights and an axe will be on the line.
Not many are surprised to see the Badgers with an 8-2 (5-1) record at this point in the season, but Minnesota also happens to be sitting at 8-2 (4-2) with two regular season games remaining. This is also the first time both teams have come into the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe, the longest standing rivalry in the FBS, ranked since 2005.
While the Golden Gophers hold the edge in the all-time series (58-56-8), Wisconsin has won the last nine meetings and in recent years, this hasn't been much of a rivalry. But with Minnesota reviving its football program under the guidance of Jerry Kill, it is ready to renew the rivalry by defeating the Badgers for the first time in ten years.
What will help the Gophers is that this particular contest takes place at home, which is where they won their fourth consecutive game over Penn State. Coming off a bye week, Minnesota has had an extra week to prepare for Wisconsin, which is fresh off a dismantling of Indiana, 51-3.
Can the Gophers eliminate the Badgers from BCS contention and perhaps even launch themselves into the conversation? Check out our complete game preview of the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe.
Day, Time: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT
Place: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.
Spread: Wisconsin (-16), via Odds Shark
Wisconsin's Keys to Victory
Don't buy into the hype
There are five games in Week 13 that feature two nationally ranked teams, and this game just so happens to be one of them. Nobody could have expected that heading into the season, and Minnesota is one of the hottest teams in the country entering one of its most meaningful games in recent memory.
A lot has been said about Wisconsin's outside shot at reaching a BCS bowl as of late. The Badgers are also on fire recently—they haven't lost a game since September, and taking down the Gophers on the road would actually give them a nice boost in strength of victory as well in the BCS standings.
But head coach Gary Andersen doesn't care about any of that.
He understands the importance of this rivalry and the importance of winning this game, but just as the Badgers have done all season long, they need to stay within themselves, treat each game with equal importance and focus on the task at hand.
Wisconsin has excellent senior leadership, but the last thing the Badgers want to do is let all this noise inside the locker room and become overwhelmed by the hype.
Maintain balance on offense
Minnesota doesn't do anything particularly well statistically, and that's not to be disrespectful—it has been finding ways to win close games as of late, and that is a testament to the Gophers' defense. They will present a challenge, as only Iowa and Ohio State are among the Badgers' past Big Ten opponents this season to have a better run defense than Minnesota.
The Gophers have the No. 7 run defense and the No. 8 pass defense in the B1G, which doesn't exactly jump out and scare you. But they have been playing better football as of late, and the cold, blistery weather in Minneapolis could make throwing the ball difficult—the forecast calls for a high of 28 degrees on Saturday.
Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave showed the ability to throw the football relatively well in sloppy conditions against Indiana, however, and everyone knows how well the Badgers run the football. Having a steady rushing attack will help open up the passing game, and that balance will be key in picking apart the Minnesota defense.
Minnesota's Keys to Victory
Keep David Cobb rolling
For all the praise Wisconsin receives for its ability to run the football, Minnesota isn't half bad at pounding the rock themselves, and that's thanks to tailback David Cobb.
The Gophers are No. 4 in the B1G when it comes to rushing, only behind Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. It will be one of the biggest tests of the season for this senior-laden Wisconsin front seven, and it will also have to account for quarterback Philip Nelson's running ability.
The sophomore quarterback has rushed for 335 yards and six touchdowns in 2013, while Cobb is quickly approaching the 1,000-yard mark. He's topped 100 yards in his last four games, including an average of 155 yards in his last three.
This won't be the first time the Badgers have gone up against a potent rushing attack that included a dual-threat quarterback, but that doesn't mean it will be an easy task.
If Nelson can find some success scrambling, that opens up more running lanes for Cobb. A ground game that keeps the chains moving also keeps the Wisconsin offense off the field and wears down its defense.
Stack the box, trust your secondary
As we mentioned before, we can expect some chilly, nasty conditions for Saturday afternoon, which means it won't be easy to move the football through the air.
Not that this should change Minnesota's strategy on defense.
When you can slow Wisconsin's ground game, it typically means the Badgers are in trouble. They often go up against teams that load the box with eight men, challenging Wisconsin to throw the football. The thing is, that doesn't really faze the Badgers—they still hand it off, allowing their offensive line to move bodies and either James White or Melvin Gordon to make a play.
Stacking the box tends to leave some one-on-one matchups at receiver, and Wisconsin has a good one in Jared Abbrederis. But the Gophers need to trust their secondary to win those battles, because stopping the run is their No. 1 priority.
Players to Watch on Wisconsin
Offense: TE Jacob Pedersen
The Badgers have their fair share of weapons on offense. There's tailback James White, who is averaging 161.3 yards over his last three games, running back Melvin Gordon, who went over 1,300 yards rushing on the season against Indiana, and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who is one of the best wide-outs in the Big Ten.
None of them, however, may be more important to the Badgers this Saturday than tight end Jacob Pedersen.
If everything goes according to plan, Minnesota's primary objective will be slowing down Wisconsin's running attack, and then shutting down Abbrederis. That's already a lot to account for, which means Pedersen should be presented with a favorable matchup.
Pedersen has been more involved in the offense as of late, catching a season-high six passes against BYU two weeks ago and then racking up a season-high 92 receiving yards last Saturday against Indiana. Look for Stave to turn his way on third down passing situations to keep the Wisconsin offense on the field.
Defense: LB Chris Borland
You'd be hard-pressed to find a linebacker in college football that gets after it harder than the Badgers' Chris Borland.
Despite missing the better part of two games this season, the senior linebacker leads Wisconsin in tackles by a landslide and is one of 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award. He is the cog in the Badger defense that is one of the best at stopping the run, which will be critical against a team with a strong rushing attack and a dual-threat quarterback.
There isn't much left to be said about Borland—nothing he does on a weekly basis is all that surprising anymore, and we mean that as a compliment. He'll be playing on Sundays.
Players to Watch on Minnesota
Offense: QB Philip Nelson
Among Big Ten regulars at quarterback, sophomore Philip Nelson has thrown the second-fewest passes in the conference. That just goes to show how reliant Minnesota is on the running game, which includes Nelson, who has the third-most carries on the team.
In fact, the second-leading rusher on the Gophers is also a quarterback—redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner.
Nelson has received a large majority of the playing time under center however, especially as of late. The Wisconsin run defense is stingy, so it might come down to how well Nelson is able to throw the football or get outside of the pocket and make things happen with his feet.
The main focus of the Badgers' defense will be stopping the run, and while its secondary has improved week after week, it still remains the weakness on this unit. We'll see if Nelson can make some plays with his arm to keep Minnesota's offense on the field—it is third in the B1G in time of possession.
Defense: DE Theiren Cockran
Just as Minnesota is particularly great at defending either the run or the pass, it doesn't feature any standout performers on that side of the football. That is, unless you include defensive end Theiren Cockran.
Cockran is just tenth on the team in tackles, but nobody wreaks more havoc in the backfield. He leads the Gophers in sacks (6.5), forced fumbles (3) and tackles for a loss (9.0) this season, and he also has an imposing 6'6" frame that can disrupt passing lanes and help him match up with the monsters on Wisconsin's offensive line.
Since the Badgers don't do all that much passing, Cockran may not see as much of the field, but with his ability to get after the quarterback and force turnovers, he could very well make a game-changing play in the rare instance when Wisconsin is faced with a sure passing situation.
What They Are Saying
While Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill has been forced to coach from upstairs due to his epilepsy, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen was able to put a humorous spin on the situation based on past experience.
GA: 'Last time I (coached) in the box, I think I put a hole in the wall, so Coach McBride never let me go up again.' #Badgers— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) November 18, 2013
The Gophers don't throw the ball much, but Derrick Engel is the team's leading receiver.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill acknowledged leading WR Derrick Engel suffered knee injury Could be out vs. #Badgers— Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) November 19, 2013
Kill had high praise for the Badgers, a team that has had Minnesota's number over the past decade.
It looks like the Gophers are embracing the role of the underdog.
#Gophers QB Philip Nelson on being 16-point underdogs: "It puts a smile to all of our faces because that's exactly where we want to be."— Tyler Mason (@FSNtylermason) November 19, 2013
"It is an easy game to focus on. It's the rivalry. We've got the Axe in our locker room. We see it every day. On top of that, they're a much-improved team.
"It will be easy to get ready."
It's been quite awhile since the battle for The Axe meant as much as it does this time around.
Both teams are riding lengthy winning streaks, have the same record, crack the Top 25 of the BCS standings and have one goal in mind—to bring home Paul Bunyan's Axe. The last thing the Badgers want to do is relinquish that Axe and allow Minnesota to run over to their sideline after the game.
While these two teams aren't separated by much according to record or ranking, they are according to talent. Wisconsin has only allowed two touchdowns in its last three games, and it's coming off a game in which it rushed for 554 yards.
Minnesota simply doesn't feature a dynamic playmaker on either side of the ball, while the Badgers have several. The Gophers may be 16-point underdogs, but there is more pressure for them to finally come through, as Minnesota is finally ranked and longing for the respect of college football pundits.
As in a majority of their games this season, the Badgers are better than their opponent in every facet of the game. The home field advantage could work in Minnesota's favor to a degree, but there will still be plenty of red in the seats. Wisconsin will retain Paul Bunyan's Axe and win its sixth game in a row to keep its BCS hope alive.
Prediction: Wisconsin 34, Minnesota 20