5th Quarter Consensus: Wisconsin will earn Paul Bunyan's Axe for 10th straight year

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

Will Wisconsin hang onto Paul Bunyan's Axe by defeating the surprising Gophers in frozen Minnesota? Our staff thinks so.

The Predictions

Phil Mitten (10-0, +144): Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 26

Jake Harris (10-0, +163): Wisconsin 37, Minnesota 10

Mike Fiammetta (9-1, +156): Wisconsin 41, Minnesota 21

Jake Kocorowski (9-1, +173): Wisconsin 41, Minnesota 24

Andy Johnson (9-1, +174): Wisconsin 37, Minnesota 13

Andrew Rosin (9-1, +175): Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 13

Louis Bien (9-1, +202): Wisconsin 37, Minnesota 20

The Reasoning

It has been several years since this game meant something outside the upper Midwest. After making the suspect decision to fire Glen Mason and hire the disastrous Tim Brewster as head coach, Minnesota went into a tailspin from which it is just now beginning to recover. Jerry Kill, now in his third season at the helm, has weathered personal health issues in building the program back to respectability.

At 8-2, Minnesota, like Wisconsin, is still mathematically alive for a Big Ten title. While Ohio State and Michigan State seem destined for Indianapolis, the Golden Gophers prepare to face their toughest tests of the season against the Badgers and Spartans. Wisconsin, meanwhile, will look to continue stating its strong case for an at-large spot in a BCS bowl.

Offensively, it appears Minnesota has learned a thing or two from its neighbors to the east over the last 10 years. A pro-style approach founded upon a big, strong offensive line, a dominant rushing attack and play-action passing wins games in the Big Ten.

The Gophers have run the ball 466 times this season, which leads the conference. They average a respectable 218.5 yards per game on the ground at 4.7 yards per carry. Junior David Cobb, a Texas product, leads the way with 942 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season.

Cobb has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in each of Minnesota's last four games. In back-to-back losses to Iowa and Michigan, however, Cobb combined for 42 yards on 15 carries. Wisconsin boasts the nation's seventh-ranked rushing defense, so Saturday could be another struggle for Cobb and the Gophers.

One of the reasons Minnesota runs the ball so often is that sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson remains a work in progress. Nelson made his first collegiate start at Camp Randall Stadium in 2012 and has improved by leaps and bounds since then. His completion percentage is up from 49.3 to 57.2, his yards per attempt up from 5.74 to 8.17 and his adjusted quarterback rating up from 48.0 to 74.6.

Nelson boasts a 9-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio, despite missing two games. In two November contests, he has thrown five scores and no picks. He is also a threat to take off and run, having gone for at least 40 yards four times in 2013.

But the Badgers have contained better runners and more prolific passers than Nelson this season and high temperatures between 14 and 18 degrees favor the defense. Perhaps more importantly, the Gophers could be without their top receiving threat, senior Derrick Engel, due to a knee injury. Engel leads the team with 25 receptions for 401 yards and five touchdowns.

Defensively, this looks like a bad matchup for Minnesota. The Gophers rank seventh in the Big Ten in allowing 147 rushing yards per game. Only Purdue, Indiana and Illinois give up more than the 4.4 yards per carry Minnesota surrenders.

Senior defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman is a force and will play on Sundays. He has recorded nine tackles-for-loss and broken up seven passes this season. Nonetheless, expect Wisconsin to stick with James White and Melvin Gordon until Minnesota proves its ability to stop them.

If UW quarterback Joel Stave does face 3rd-and-long situations, he remains a liability to make a poor decision or a poor throw. Stave has tossed eight interceptions this year.

Senior kicker Chris Hawthorne has connected on 12 of his 15 field-goal attempts for the Gophers, including 12-of-13 within 49 yards. Minnesota's return units have been solid as well, averaging 23.4 yards per kickoff return and 10.3 yards per run-back on punts.

It is not hyperbole to suggest Saturday represents Minnesota's biggest home game since Mason strolled the sideline. The Gophers always want to win Paul Bunyan's Axe in the worst way, but this is the first time in recent memory when their belief in their ability to win it rings legitimate. Add to that the fact that Minnesota has had two weeks to prepare for its longtime rival and the game could be closer than many expect.

But while the records may be identical at 8-2, Wisconsin is still the better team this year.

Who has the edge?

Offense: Wisconsin

Defense: Wisconsin

Special Teams: Minnesota

Coaching: Wisconsin

Intangibles: Minnesota

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