Badgers/Gophers Preview: The Axe Factor

Jeff RobbinsContributor INovember 11, 2011

The Paul Bunyan Axe has spent more time in Wisconsin over the last eight years than Bernie Brewer.

The compact disc is apparently on its way out. Regis Philbin (whose core audience is still lamenting the demise of 78 RPM records) is almost done with his talk show. Bil Keane, creator of The Family Circus newspaper comic strip, died. Adam Sandler has a new movie out.

But overshadowing everything else happening over the past few days has been the unbelievably sad and disturbing reports that have been emanating from the place ironically known as Happy Valley.

Though the shine is clearly off this weekend’s marquee Big Ten matchup of Nebraska (7-2) at Penn State (8-1), Wisconsin sports fans can at least look forward to a glorious weekend of football.

That is, if you include Monday in your definition of “weekend,” as the 8-0 Packers take on the 2-6 Vikings on Monday Night Football. Now, there’s no doubt that the Vikings have been marginally better since dumping the awful Donovan McNabb, and there’s no doubt that the Packers pass defense has played less than stellar football recently.

But the Vikings are still at best – at best – a work in progress, and the Packers – well, maybe just Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, and Jordy Nelson, but that’s been good enough – have been awesome. It also stands to reason that the Packers’ defense, tired of hearing how their offense needs to score 40 points a game to cover their deficiencies, will step up and produce a shutdown game. Unlike the contest just three weeks ago, this one could get ugly.

But it might be closer than this weekend’s other football game between teams from Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Those people who had leaped off the Wisconsin bandwagon following those two heartbreaking road losses were proven a bit hasty in their judgment following last week’s 62-17 blowout of Purdue, a team that was itself just one week removed from upsetting then-No. 23 Illinois.

But has the stench around this Saturday’s opponent, the Golden Gophers, become less odious? After all, they surprised Iowa two weeks ago to win their first Big Ten game of the season and then played Michigan State surprisingly close last week before falling 31-24 at East Lansing.

Could the Gophers be on their way to brandishing Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003?

In a word, unlikely.

Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines to the game:

1. The Axe. It may seem to some as a silly tradition, but players and coaches on both sides take what symbolizes the most-played rivalry in Division I-A college football pretty seriously. Listen to center Peter Konz: “This is a big emotional game for all of us. I know they want the Axe bad because they haven’t had it for a few years. We’re not taking Minnesota lightly.” Likewise, here’s what Gophers coach Jerry Kill had to say about Saturday’s game: “I know it means a ton to our players and the state of Minnesota. It’s dang important to us.” Especially at TCF Bank Stadium (although certainly there will be the usual strong showing of Badger Nation present), the Badgers should expect to get the Gophers’ strongest effort of the season. But as Konz notes, Wisconsin won’t take anything for granted.

2. Russell Wilson Lite? Though he understandably hasn’t been as highly touted as Wisconsin’s senior QB, the Gophers’ junior quarterback Marqueis Gray has definitely been making strides as of late: Over the last two weeks, Gray has completed 62 percent of his passes and against Michigan State – one of the nation’s best defenses – he threw for three touchdowns. And like Wilson, Gray does it with his legs as well, only more so: Over the last three weeks, he’s rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner over Iowa. Wisconsin’s defense has struggled against mobile quarterbacks this season – Ohio State’s Braxton Miller rushed for 99 yards two weeks ago and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez piled up 61 yards on the ground (though it took him 20 carries to do so), so Wisconsin could have its hands full with Gray.

3. Ball Busting Records. Saturday could be a big game for junior running back Montee Ball, who is having the biggest breakthrough year this side of anyone not named Russell Wilson. With just one rushing touchdown, Ball will break the season school record of 24 touchdowns, a title he currently shares with Brian Calhoun. With three touchdowns (and he has three or more in four games this year), he will break the Big Ten record. Ball should excel against a porous Minnesota defense giving up nearly 200 yards a game on the ground this year.

Final prediction: Wisconsin 40, Minnesota 27.