Well, we know what this weekend is. The Home Opener. The Eastern Rivals. The 119th game in the rivalry (59-51-8 in favor of Minnesota, Badger fans). Paul Bunyan's Axe. The people from the east who annually leave their cesspool of a state in order to take our jobs and steal our hunting posts. That's right, this weekend is a dual-pronged assault on the Twin Cities by those fools to the East. While Peter King is figuring out which Twin Cities restaurant he should take Brett Favre to dinner, and while ESPN shatters its "Favre-o-meter," we have to deal with Saturday before getting to Monday night.
(Full disclosure: I grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, in a home of Michigan transplants, as some of you could probably suspect. I never have been a fan of any Wisconsin sports team.)
This time, though, it feels different. Yes, Badger fans will be here. Yes, they're buying up our tickets from those Gopher students who need ramen and beer money. But, the game's on campus, at home. At TCF. This will be a real football game, finally, instead of what always seemed like a neutral site game where Badger fans won the Ticketmaster battle. While I still think Badger fans will get into TCF in decent numbers, it should look more like representation in Ann Arbor during the Ohio State-Michigan game, with a small block of red along with the assorted "zits" of support throughout the stadium, rather than the full out rash the Metrodump's upper deck usually resembled.
I will say here I am concerned about some sort of incident occurring between the rival fans, because Wisconsin fans are louts and Gopher fans are sick of them coming up here every year. If the normal influx of Wisconsin fans occurs, they won't all be in the stadium, as was the trend in previous years, and that gives me pause if they're hanging out on campus. Everyone, take a deep breath. Let the Badgers drain the state's alcohol supply. They'll leave with the paint thinner, but they'll have to leave the Axe and their dollars behind.
So, let's get going. Instead of a depth chart, have a look at this to see the relevant players for each team, as well as their acclaim from Rivals and Scout. It's worth mentioning here Wisconsin has two kids listed that are from my hometown: RB John Clay, who went to my high school, led it to a state title, and rushed for 257 yards and 3 TDs in said state title game, and SS Chris Maragos, who was a walk-on and transfer and plays better than a zero star. It's also worth mentioning that I believe Maragos's mother was my sex ed teacher in school.
Here are five somewhat relevant matchups to watch for on Saturday:
(1) Wisconsin RB John Clay v. the non-Cedric McKinley defensive front - Yes, John Clay is one of the nation's top backs. And don't buy that he's still #2 on Wisconsin's depth chart behind Zack Brown. So far this year, 80 rushes for 398 yards and 4 TDs. Last week versus Sparty, he carried 32 times for 142 yards and one touchdown. Any question on what Wisconsin wants to do in a road environment?
Clay does have the tendency to fumble, putting the ball on the ground three times against Wofford and causing a stupid Wisconsin blogger to ask whether Clay "gets it" (I don't link to stupidity). Whatever. This guy's a hoss and a NFL-caliber talent who, for whatever reason, Bielema has tried to bury (which says more about Bielema than Clay - imagine Clay in Minnesota's offense).
In conjunction with Clay, Minnesota's got to get ready for Wisconsin's beef eaters up front - they average 6'6" and 310 pounds, so I'm not sure Minnesota's line will get the surge it did against Syracuse, Air Force and Northwestern. McKinley's loss is huge (and on that topic, if Gary Tinsley isn't going to be suspended for swinging a board and getting cited for drunkenness, what in the world did McKinley and Dandridge do?) and the rest of the defensive front seven need to cover for him. They can do it, but this will be the toughest, most physical rushing attack Minnesota has faced thus far.
(2) Minnesota D-Coordinator Kevin Cosgrove v. What He Ought To Be Able To Stop - Yes, Cosgrove was hired because he was Brewster's long-time friend, was available, was (probably) cheap, and because our first choices turned us down. If there are things to be happy about in the hire, a couple include: (1) Cosgrove has earned his money at haltime making adjustments this year, and (2) he was Wisconsin's defensive coordinator from 1995-2003, a period of much greater acclaim for him than when he coordinated Nebraska's defensive fall from grace from 2004-2007.
Easy analysis: Bielema has kept in a similar offensive philosophy as that of previous coach Barry Alvarez - big offensive line, strong running, play-action, and shifty, big wide receivers (such as WR David Gilreath, from New Hope. We've got to keep these kids in state). If anyone other than Alvarez knows this offense better that isn't a current Badger staff member than Cosgrove, I don't believe it. Cosgrove has likely had this game circled on his calendar since his hire. This is the day he should earn his bacon.
(3) Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien v. Crowd Noise, a Road Game, Etc. - Yes, Tolzien has played well so far. He is calm in the pocket and sells the play fake well. He is 66 for 99 this year, for 884 yards with 8 TDs and only 2 INTs.
Against Northern Illinois, Fresno State, Wofford and Michigan State. At home.
Road games for first-year QB starters are never good. I doubt this guy will buck the trend (get it buck kthxby) for the entire four quarters. There will be a 2-3 drive stretch where this guy plays like a freshman Adam Weber. It's up to Minnesota to exploit those drives, get turnovers, and turn the turnovers into points. If they don't, head bang on table.
(4) Wisconsin TE Garrett Graham v. Nate Triplett, Lee Campbell and Simoni Lawrence - Looking back, the tight end has not been that significant of a weapon against Minnesota so far this year (Cal's TE made a fine shoestring catch in the fourth quarter which caused him to strain his back and leave the game, but nothing else significant). That changes tomorrow.
Wisconsin loves TEs like, well, McAdams loves Gosling. Last year, Travis Beckum, this year, Graham. The Brick, NJ native so far has 16 receptions for 200 yards and 4 TDs. Three of those TDs came against Sparty last week. The savior of a young quarterback, especially in a hostile environment, is the checkdown TE or RB. Expect Graham to be looked for early by Tolzien as he settles down to the game. If the Gopher LBs can neutralize his effect on the game, the CBs and safeties can instead focus on the outside threat of Gilreath and Toon. That leads to....
(5) Minnesota S Kim Royston v. His Hopes To Vanquish The Badgers By Himself - Rule #1 about transfers: it's rare that a player transfers for a reason outside of playing time, especially within the conference and to a team 4 hours away. Royston wouldn't have left Wisconsin if he was starting or going to get playing time in front of Pleasant and Maragos (another fun fact: Maragos went to my archrival high school: Racine Horlick. The insults wrote themselves). Royston undoubtedly circled this game as well the day he signed his transfer papers, and after his goalline INT last week, will surely try for similar heroics against the Badgers.
He needs to calm down. The Badger staff knows his strengths and weaknesses after working with him for a year. Also, the tape indicates a propensity to get beaten deep (see: Cal and Northwestern). He needs to stay in control, especially in the first series, when Wisconsin may target him through play-action. If he can settle into the game without making a mistake due to trying to "prove the Badgers wrong," all the better for the Gophers.
So, Big Ten opener at home, with these guys, the Badgers, the varmint, the (ultimately) successful program that I wouldn't have a single problem if Minnesota emulated their level of success, coming to town. Hopefully they have less than 20% of the seats at this game for the first time since the Reagan Administration.
Bang your head (against a table) if: Cosgrove can't stop an offense, led by a QB in his first road start, which he coached against in practice for years. Quite simply, if he cannot stop Clay, we'll be subjected to play-action hell.
Bang your head (like you're at a rock concert) if: Clay is stopped, Tolzien plays like a first-time road starter, and Decker has an average game (which means, 120 yards and 2 TDs).
My prediction for Saturday: the last two weeks I predicted Cal 31, Minnesota 21 and Minnesota 33 - Northwestern 20. Heed my call. And when the children cry, let them know I tried to warn them that Wisconsin is going to lose about 20 pounds of wood at 2pm CST. Minnesota 37 - Wisconsin 34.