I tell you, it's a good thing The Battle for the Axe is a well regarded, set-in-stone idiom. Otherwise, I'd exhaust my thesaurus pretty quickly.
"Fight?" Ehh, not really football-ish. "Armed conflict?" Sure, this is an Axe we're playing for, anyway. "Clash?" Already used that in the subhead.
Sure, there are plenty more synonyms to throw out. I just won't be calling a football game a "skirmish" any time soon.
So what's the point of this rant? I believe it may reflect the general attitudes of Wisconsin fans heading into Saturday's annual rivalry game with Minnesota. We barely beat Northern Iowa, lost to Oregon State and then lost our offensive line coach. Utah State came next and Wisconsin escaped with a two-point win, and then UTEP came to town with a scare of its own. Then the trip to Nebraska, and you all remember that.
These last two wins, against Illinois and at Purdue, have quelled so many of those fears, nobody's asking where our "two-minute guy," Danny O'Brien, went.
So now this yearly border battle comes, the most historic rivalry in FBS history, and Wisconsin fans are more focused on their team's prospects for meeting the preseason expectations. Justifiably so, in my opinion. The Gophers haven't laid their paws on the almighty Axe since 2003 (proof below), and at the risk of sounding impossibly arrogant here (absolutely not my intention) Badgers fans can't help their preoccupation with this bizarre, bizarre season. Our team looks primed to erupt into 2011 Russell-Wilson-Montee-Not Mon-tay-Ball fashion... which of course, scares us out of our minds.
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So to keep our focus in check, we've turned to our friends at the great SB Nation Minnesota blog, The Daily Gopher. JDMill was gracious enough to answer our questions and share the enemy perspective, which has soured quite a bit since Minnesota spoiled its 4-0 start with two straight losses.
1. B5Q: To start, how are Minnesota fans feeling about the season thus far? What's gone right or wrong, and how do you expect it all to translate into Saturday's game?
JDMill: Two ways to look at this. We were happy with the 4-0 start. We aren't as crushed by losing the last two games as we are creased by how we lost them. It's really been a handful of plays against both Iowa and Northwestern that doomed us, and then the inability of our offense to come from behind. In losing, the issue has been simple: Mistakes. Lots of mistakes. We had a short window of horrendous breakdowns against Iowa that doomed us, and we got behind the 8-ball early against NWestern because of a fumble on the opening kick-off. We were +5 in turnover margin after our first 4 games, but after 7 TO's in two games in the B1G, we are -2 for the season.
What makes me nervous about Saturday is that the Badgers are finding their groove and, as per usual, the groove is in the running game (groove is NOT in the heart, sorry DeeeLite). Unfortunately for the Gophers, their weakness is in defending the run.
2. B5Q: How has Minnesota's offense functioned so far this season? I see some big early-season point totals, but the Gophers have scored only 13 in each of the last two weeks.
JDMill: Yeah, so you may have heard that MarQueis Gray has been injured. So many things in our offense key off of him, so that has really slowed things down. We thought we could have a nice passing attack with Max Shortell but he's been pretty bad the last two games, so we're not quite sure what we have with him.
I guess the offense is a work-in-progress if anything. We've been happy to find out that we're reasonably deep at WR/TE, but we don't really have a "go to" guy right now. The offensive line has performed below expectations and injuries have really been mounting with that unit. All that to say... I'm a little worried that things aren't going to get better quickly.
3. B5Q: Speaking of the offense, how is MarQueis Gray? Will he play on Saturday? How has the QB situation looked with and without him this season?
JDMill: Oh, um... I guess I kind of already answered that. Let me elaborate on Shortell. Max can be good. He's a sophomore who never had a redshirt season and he's getting way more playing time than expected. He can be accurate, he does a decent job picking up the blitz and he does a better job of checking through his progressions than MarQueis. The problem is that he just isn't a threat to run, which as I mentioned before is a bit of a key in Matt Limegrover's offense.
4. B5Q: And the defense? Minnesota allows 19.8 points per game, just a shade behind Wisconsin (18.4) for sixth in the conference.
JDMill: The defense is incredibly improved from last season. The Gophers have a pass rush, we have a good secondary against the pass, and there's a lot more confidence in their ability. But they've been awful against the run. The Gophers rank in the top 1/3rd of the conference in almost every pass defense statistical category, and near the bottom in almost every rush defense category. It's absolutely maddening.
It's been breakdowns in assignments or coverages for short stints that have really doomed them the last two games and that have driven that PPG allowed number up.
5. B5Q: Wisconsin has been remarkably difficult to predict this year. Given that and what you've seen from Minnesota, what kind of game are you expecting on Saturday?
JDMill: I'm scared to death. Montee Ball is twice the back that Mark Weisman is, and Weisman had a field day racking up some HUGE yards up the middle. We're not bad at snuffing things if the opposition pushes it around the edge, but nobody bothers to do that because we're so ghastly up the middle. (Ghastly? Did I just say that? What am I, 90 years old all of a sudden?)
So I'm expecting more of that this weekend. I keep hoping that Tracy Claeys will figure out how to stop the run game, but it hasn't come close to happening so far.
6. B5Q: As quickly as you can, how do you breakdown the advantages between these teams on offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff and intangibles?
JDMill: Except for coaching staff (because I, like most Gopher fans, think Bert Bielema is a huge douche and I happen to think very highly of Jerry Kill), I think every other phase favors the Badgers.
Look, I don't have a lot of confidence in our team right now. We're more talented and more disciplined than last year, but we're still very young and still very mistake prone, which is where I believe Wisconsin has the advantage as far as intangibles: experience.
The Badger offense is good at doing what we are bad at stopping, and I have no idea what the Badger defense is good at, but I'm not sure it matters because at the moment we aren't good at anything but turning the ball over.
7. B5Q: Lastly, how large of a Gophers contingent should we expect at Camp Randall on Saturday? And do you have a prediction?
JDMill: Madison is a very reasonable drive from Minneapolis and provides a great college atmosphere. Gopher fans usually travel pretty well to Camp Randall so you can probably expect to see our section full plus a hint here and there of maroon and gold in the student section perhaps. I say "probably" expect to see our section full because, as you know, things have been a little rough the last few weeks, so a bit of the early season "shine" on the season has worn off. Couple that with the Badgers picking up their game, and it's possible that some Gopher fans have decided not to make the trip.
As for a prediction, Wisconsin wins 31-21.