Wisconsin football schedule: Getting to know Minnesota

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Bunyan's Axe is on the line this weekend as the Badgers head to Minneapolis to take on the Golden Gophers, one of the hottest and most surprising teams in the nation.

At the beginning of the season, if one was to tell the Wisconsin Badgers that Minnesota would be hot for their Nov. 23rd meeting at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., they would probably be excited at the opportunity to play in warm weather so late in the season.

Now, with two weeks remaining in the regular season, "Minnesota" in the aforementioned sentence is not referring to the state but rather the Minnesota Golden Gophers football team and "hot" is definitely not about the weather.

Since head coach Jerry Kill stepped away from the sidelines and moved to the press box after suffering yet another seizure on the field against Michigan Oct. 5th, the Golden Gophers have not lost a football game (4-0). The four-game winning streak is the longest such streak Minnesota has put together since it won four games in a row in 1973.

While Minnesota will not be the host-site of ESPN's "College GameDay," the game this weekend will still be the network's national game at 2:30pm CT. Here are three things to know prior to kickoff.

Battle for the Axe

Minnesota (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) and Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) have played annually every year since 1890, except for 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to cool down some of the most heated rivalries in college football due to some injuries and deaths that had occurred on the fields. With the two teams taking the field for the 123rd time, this meeting is the most played rivalry in the FBS.

For the first time since 2005, both teams come into Saturday's meeting ranked in national polls (Badgers No. 16, AP; No. 17, Coaches; No. 19, BCS; Gophers No. 23, Coaches; No. 25, BCS). When the two teams met in 2005, the then-ranked No. 23 Badgers defeated the then-ranked No. 22 Gophers, 38-34, to knock Minnesota out of the rankings and keep Paul Bunyan's Axe in Madison.

Paul Bunyan's Axe was introduced in 1948 after the "Slab of Bacon," the previous trophy in this series, went missing. While the Gophers hold a slim 58-56-8 advantage in the all-time series, the Badgers have a commanding 38-24-3 stranglehold on the series since the Axe became the trophy.

Wisconsin has been dominant in recent memory against Minnesota, having won the past nine meetings, the longest streak for either team in the 123-year series history. In the past three meetings specifically, the Badgers are defeating the Gophers by an average score of 40.3-16.3.

With that being said, the Badgers know how good of a team the Gophers are and they are preparing for what is certain to be one of the toughest tests of the season.

"We all know what week this is," senior linebacker Conor O'Neill said after the team's 51-3 victory over Indiana. "For the seniors, the Axe has never left our locker room and we’re not going to be the senior class that lets it leave. It’s going to be a bloodbath and it’s going to be fun."

Recent series history
G Date School Opponent Pts Opp W L T Streak
120 Oct 20, 2012 Wisconsin Minnesota 38 13 55 57 8 W 9
119 Nov 12, 2011 Wisconsin @ Minnesota 42 13 54 57 8 W 8
118 Oct 9, 2010 Wisconsin Minnesota 41 23 53 57 8 W 7
117 Oct 3, 2009 Wisconsin @ Minnesota 31 28 52 57 8 W 6
116 Nov 15, 2008 Wisconsin Minnesota 35 32 51 57 8 W 5

Back to basics

After seeing back-to-back high-paced, up-tempo offenses, the Badgers will face a more traditional offense in Minnesota.

The Gophers' offense ranks seventh in the Big Ten in scoring (30.7 points per game) and second-to-last in yards per game (367.9). While ranking fourth in the conference in rushing yards (218.5 per game), the Gophers' main problem area is in the passing game, where they rank dead last with just 149.4 yards per game.

Derrick Engel and Maxx Williams lead the Gophers in receiving, but fall short in comparison to the rest of the Big Ten receiving corps. Engel (401 yards) and Williams (299 yards) rank 17th and 28th, respectively, in total receiving yards this season. Perhaps the reasoning behind such low yardage numbers is the fact that sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson has attempted just 138 passes this season, second-fewest in the Big Ten.

With little passing taking place in the Gopher offense, it's no surprise that Minnesota controls the majority of its games with the feet of junior running back David Cobb, who's fifth in the Big Ten with 94.2 yards per game on the ground. Cobb's seven touchdowns are a team-high, excluding Nelson, and his four straight hundred-yard rushing games is something that hasn't been done in a Minnesota uniform since Amir Pinnix did it in 2007.

In five of the Gophers' six Big Ten games this season (not Iowa) they have out-gained their opponent in rushing yards and in time of possession. In fact, the Gophers are third in the Big Ten in time of possession, as they have controlled 333:50 of the possible 600:00, trailing only Michigan State (349:26) and Wisconsin (341:00).

Perhaps what the Gophers do best is take advantage of scoring opportunities when they present themselves. Minnesota is second in the Big Ten in red-zone scoring percentage, putting points on the board on 31 of 32 red-zone trips (96.9 percent).

Team defense

As is the case with the offense, Minnesota's defense doesn't have any big-time individual play-makers who stand out on the stat sheet, but their overall team defense is something that should give the Badgers some hesitation -- at least a little bit more than Indiana's defense did.

Fifth in the Big Ten in points allowed (23.4 per game) and eighth in yards against (380.8 per game), the Gophers have managed the third-fewest sacks, 15, in the conference this season. Where the Gophers do perform exceptionally well, however, is in their red-zone defense. Minnesota is the top team in the Big Ten when it comes to opponents' red-zone scoring, as it has allowed opposing teams to score on just 28 of 37 trips inside the 20 yard-line (75.7 percent). Of those 28 scores, 19 have been touchdowns and the remaining nine have been field goals.

Another positive for this Minnesota defensive crew has been its limiting of teams to score 10 or more points in two separate quarters just twice this season (Michigan and Indiana). The Gophers are allowing 5.6 points in the first quarter, 6.1 in the second, 4.7 in the third and 7.0 in the fourth quarters this season.

On an individual level, junior linebacker Damien Wilson leads the team with 57 tackles but, like the Gopher receiving corps, when stacked up against the rest of the conference the Gopher players find themselves outside the top tier at any given position. Wilson's tackle total leaves him at 35th in the conference in said category and by the time players one through 34 are accounted for, all of the other Big Ten teams, hold Purdue, have at least two defensive players listed.

Minnesota has allowed more than 190 yards rushing in a Big Ten game just once so far this season (227 yards on the ground to Indiana) and with the Badgers coming off a game in which they accumulated 554 rushing yards, something will have to give Saturday afternoon.

With this being the final ranked opponent Wisconsin sees in the regular season -- barring the NCAA retracting all of the sanctions against Penn State and the Nittany Lions then going out and having an unbelievable game this weekend against Nebraska -- the Badgers will need to take full advantage of the situation as they make the push toward a top-14 ranking in the BCS standings in order to guarantee themselves a BCS bowl at-large bid.

But, as Gary Andersen has said before, the Badgers are going to take the season one game at a time and Saturday's matchup with Minnesota on the Gophers' senior day is nothing to scoff at.

If a potential BCS bowl does not get Wisconsin up for Minnesota, then the thought of the Gophers hoisting Paul Bunyan's Axe for the first time since 2003 should do the trick.

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