- A 40th win for a senior class playing its last game at Camp Randall Stadium.
- Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
- A 13th straight win in FBS’s most played rivalry.
- A 10-win season, Wisconsin’s sixth since 2009.
- A berth in the Big Ten championship game.
All of that is at stake this Saturday for the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers as they take on their biggest rival, and that list doesn’t begin to touch on the game’s College Football Playoff implications. A victory this Saturday and another in the Big Ten championship game would give Wisconsin at least a shot at being selected to the field, in turn giving the Badgers a chance to play for their first national championship since 1912.
The hungry 8-3 Minnesota Golden Gophers are making the trip to Madison for the annual matchup, a game that they haven’t won since 2003. In that game, kicker Rhys Lloyd sank a game-winner as time expired as the No. 24 Gophers reclaimed Paul Bunyan’s Axe, 37-34. As mentioned above, Wisconsin has won each of the 12 meetings since then. A 13th win on Saturday would tie the series at 59 wins and eight ties, the first time the long-running series has been tied since 1901. Wisconsin has never led the series.
Led by second-year head coach Tracy Claeys, the Gophers are looking at their fifth straight season that will end with a bowl game. With a 5-3 conference record, they sit behind Wisconsin and Nebraska in the Big Ten West standings and are looking for their biggest win of the season. While they are eliminated from a chance at the division crown, a chance at spoiling Wisconsin’s march to Indianapolis (and beyond) would be a nice consolation.
When and where is the game?
For the final time in 2016, the Badgers will play in front of a packed Camp Randall crown. The game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. CST.
How can I watch?
Big Ten Network will broadcast the game. Kevin Kugler will bring the play-by-play, along with color-man Matt Millen and sideline reporter Lisa Byington.
How can I stream the game online?
How can I listen to it on the radio?
On the Badgers Sports Network, where you’ll find the usual of team of Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas, Mark Tauscher and Patrick Herb. On satellite radio, you’ll find the broadcast on Sirius 135/XM 195. Otherwise, head to BadgerSportsNetwork.com to find it. You can also listen on iHeartRadio (iOS/Android/online) by searching WIBA.
What can I expect to see?
Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten; Depth Chart)
Last week: 49-20 win at Purdue
Polls: No. 6 in playoff rankings (last week: No. 7), No. 5 in AP Top 25 (last week: No. 6), No. 6 in Amway Coaches Poll (last week: No. 6)
Head coach: Paul Chryst, second season at Wisconsin (19-5)
Minnesota (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten; Depth Chart)
Last week: 29-12 win vs. Northwestern
Polls: Not ranked in any, but received five votes in the AP and 11 in the coaches
Head coach: Tracy Claeys, second season at Minnesota (10-7)
When Minnesota has the ball
|Minnesota Offensive Rankings|
|Per Game||Big Ten||NCAA|
In the 2015 matchup between these two programs, Wisconsin forced five Minnesota turnovers on its way to a 31-21 victory. The Badgers would undoubtedly love to repeat that performance, but it won’t be easy—the Gophers rank seventh in the nation and second in the Big Ten in turnover margin. They’ve given the ball away only 12 times, good for fourth in the Big Ten.
At the helm of this anti-mistake offense is quarterback Mitch Leidner. The redshirt senior has played in 10 of 11 games this season and poses a running threat. He has crossed the goal line nine times this season and averages nearly 30 rushing yards per game to go with 205 passing yards. He’s been protected better than any other Big Ten quarterback; the Gophers have surrendered just nine sacks in 11 games.
Like Wisconsin, Minnesota traditionally relies on the running game and this season is no different. Carrying the bulk of the load is redshirt sophomore Rodney Smith, who has topped 1,000 yards on the season with 15 touchdowns. It’s not a one-man show, however, as fellow sophomore Shannon Brooks contributes over 70 yards a game. I feel that this line can be copied and pasted into each Battle for the Axe: a successful running game will go a long way in helping the Gophers come out on top.
When Leidner throws it, expect it to go to Drew Wolitarsky. The senior wide receiver ranks ninth and 11th in program history in receptions and yardage, respectively. Standing at 6’3, he is the only pass-catcher this season with more than 21 catches or 279 yards on the team, and is the only player on the team with multiple touchdown catches.
|Wisconsin Defensive Rankings|
|Per Game||Big Ten||NCAA|
|Rush Yds Allowed||98.3||1st||5th|
|Pass. Yds Allowed||194.3||5th||27th|
Vince Biegel, Sojourn Shelton and Leo Musso all will take the Camp Randall Stadium field on Saturday for the final time, looking to finish what they started. What exactly is that? For one, one of the most successful and impressive defensive seasons the Wisconsin football program has ever seen. They’ll do so with no new additions to the injury list—linebacker Zach Baun and Olive Sagapolu are both listed as questionable.
Updated #Badgers injury report, per UW: OLB Baun, FB Ramesh, NT Sagapolu QUESTIONABLE; RT Maxwell OUT vs. Minnesota— Jake Kocorowski (@JakeKocoB5Q) November 25, 2016
The elite Badgers defense will face some of the biggest challenges it’s faced in weeks on Saturday. Many of those challenges (Leidner’s legs and protection, the two-headed running attack) have been summarized above, but the real key for Wisconsin is the continued ability to create and take advantage of turnovers. In its last two games, blowout wins against Illinois and Purdue, Wisconsin has forced seven turnovers. While Minnesota has only turned the ball over 12 times all season, Leidner has tossed nine interceptions in 10 starts. There will be opportunities.
When Wisconsin has the ball
|Wisconsin Offensive Rankings|
|Per Game||Big Ten||NCAA|
Bart Houston came to Madison as one of the most highly-touted quarterback recruits in program history. In the time since then, he’s competed for and lost starting jobs, battled through injuries, sprinkled in a few punts and, through it all, stuck with the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he could have jetted for another program. Now, on his senior day, Houston will not start but will presumably see considerable time at quarterback. Houston has completed over 70 percent of his passes since he and Alex Hornibrook have split time, and the two combined to complete 12 of 15 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns a week ago against Purdue. Minnesota’s defense presents a stiffer challenge against the run (third in the Big Ten), so pressure may fall to the quarterback tandem and their receiving options. Minnesota’s pass defense only ranks ahead of Northwestern in the conference.
|Minnesota Defensive Rankings|
|Per Game||Big Ten||NCAA|
|Rush Yds Allowed||116.6||3rd||16th|
|Pass. Yds Allowed||235.1||13th||75th|
Much has been made lately of the improvement of the Wisconsin offensive line over the course of the season. The Badgers have a chance to prove it this weekend—again, Minnesota presents a stiff run defense and a relentless pass rush. The defensive unit ranks second in the Big Ten with 33 sacks, seven of which came last weekend against Northwestern. The Gophers present a much larger challenge than Illinois and Purdue did; their ability to get to Houston/Hornibrook could swing the game.
Individually speaking, defensive tackle Steven Richardson and linebacker Blake Cashman led the way in the pass rush with seven and six sacks, respectively. The secondary has recorded just 10 interceptions, ranking them 10th in the Big Ten. Safety Damarius Travis has reeled in two of those interceptions and is second on the team in total tackles.
Redshirt sophomore Emmit Carpenter, a Wisconsin native, handles field goals and kickoffs for Minnesota. He has only missed two of his 22 attempts and was named a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. Carpenter’s kickoff coverage unit ranks first in the Big Ten in net average yards allowed, just above Wisconsin at second.
Ryan Santoso takes care of punts for the Gophers and has a big leg; his 40.6 yards per punt rank fifth in the conference and he has recorded 10 of 50-plus yards.
Senior defensive back Jalen Myrick has taken most of the kick returns for Minnesota and averages 22.1 yards over 13 attempts. Rodney Smith has fielded a few and has proven to be dangerous; he took a kick 94 yards for a touchdown and ranks second in the Big Ten in average. Myrick also takes on punt-return duties.