The battle for The Axe is the highlight game of the year, imo. A year ago the Gophers went down to Madison and played arguably their best game of the year, nearly pulling off the huge upset on the road. Instead the game was the last competitive game we would see out of the Gophers and 2008 finished in a tailspin not easily forgotten. 2009 cannot come soon enough for the Gophers and you can bet this game is one they are looking forward to winning.
This game is the Big Ten opener for TCF Bank Stadium, it is the longest rivalry in all of college football,
we have Brett Favre on our team now and it is our anual chance to house Paul Bunyan's Axe where it rightfully belongs. I love this game and I love rivalries of this nature. I have queried a couple quality Badger blogs to get their thoughts on the Badgers. Bucky's 5th Quarter is an SBN sister and On Wisconsin is a lesser known blog full of great content. Let's get to the game...
The Badgers on Offense
Much like the Gophers the Badger offensive strengths lie with their skill position players. Dustin Sherer returns to likely start at QB, John Clay and Zach Brown should be one of the best RB tandums in the conference, Garrett Graham may be the best TE in the conference and the WRs with David Gilreath, Nick Toon and Isaac Anderson are all pretty good. Outside of Graham, those names are not going to be appearing on any All-American radar screens but they are all experienced and talented.
Where the Badger offense may struggle is along the offensive line. This group reminds me of the Gopher OL heading into last year. They are coming off a strong season from the prior year (2008) but have to replace three starters. All likely starters have experience and had started in the past just not full time. Neither B5Q or OnWisconsin seemed concerned but replacing three starters is a big deal. Here is college football expert, Phil Steele on offensive line returning starts...
When most folks judge a team for the upcoming season they look at the QB, RB and WR's that are returning. A few may take the time to look at star defensive players that are back (those with a lot of sacks or interceptions). Very few look at the offensive line and yet the team that controls the line of scrimmage wins the game more often than not. Now experience on the Oline is not the only criteria for an offensive lines potential for the next year. You have to add in Blue Chips, how last years line performed (YPC rushing and sacks allowed), size, etc.
Minnesota ranks 8th nationally with 102 returnings starts and Wisconsin ranks 95th out of 120 schools with 49 returning starts. I think this is a bigger issued than either of my respected blog-egues care to admit.
B5Q - Last year's offensive line wasn't all that special so I don't think it is that big of a deal that they lost some guys. The three new guys all have seen playing time in the past and sophomore RT Josh Oglesby should live up to all the hype he has received since high school. The point is that these guys are definitely good enough to allow John Clay to have a big season.
OnW - Of the three new starters, all have started in their careers, and all have logged many minutes. Oglesby was a 5-star recruit, Bscherer started over him their freshman year when injuries dictated the need, and Nagy started several games at guard last season. The first string will be fine. The concern is the depth. The second string has no experience, and I don't think there is a true two-deep at guard. Not counting incoming true-freshman, we don't have four guards. So the starters are fine, but injuries could pose a huge problem for the line.
I'm not convinced. The three starters they are losing all received some level of post-season recognition in the Big Ten. Kraig Urbik was 2nd team All-Conference and drafted in the third round, Andy Kemp and Eric Vanden Heuvel were both honorable mention. They weren't the most dominant players in school history or anything but they will be missed.
John Clay and Zach Brown return to form one of the deepest and more talented backfields in the conference. Assuming the OL can create some holes they should easily combine for 1,600 + yards on the season. Last fall in Madison the Gopher defense did a much better than expected job of containing this rushing attack. Clay was held to a season low 35 yards (with at least 10 carries) and PJ Hill had 117 yards but 38 of those was on one play with a missed tackle in the backfield. When the game was finished the Badgers had been held to their lowest rushing total of the season. This is a good ground game but for whatever reason the Gophers did a very good job gameplanning and executing in Madison.
Wide Receiver and Tight End are also areas of strength for the Badgers. David Gilreath was 2nd team All-Big Ten a year ago and keep an eye on sophomore, Nick Toon who may be their best receiver this year. Garrett Graham is an outstanding TE.
B5Q - As far as the receivers go, I think you are going to see a much improved group. Gilreath will continue to cause some problems and Kyle Jefferson should be healthy again. But the guy defenses should be worried about is sophomore Nick Toon who started to come on late last season and has the size and speed to be the best receiver on the team. True freshman Kraig Appleton could surprise too.
OnW - This is the best four-deep (Jefferson is the fourth) WR corps the Badgers have had in some time (at least since Williams/Orr). But the biggest concern opponents should have in the passing game is the Badger tight ends. Consider that the last three starting Badger TEs are playing in the NFL (Daniels was in the last pro bowl). Garrett Graham is the real deal and should be on all-American watch lists. Lance Kendricks is very athletic, and while slower than Beckum was, is bigger, approximating true TE size, but still fast enough to split wide. Finally, Turner is a decent true-TE, too. Expect a lot of two-TE sets that drive linebackers and safeties nuts in coverage. That's where the Badger passing game is toughest to defend. A competent quarterback could make this a very dangerous offense.
Hmmm, a compent quarterback huh? Dustin Sherer should be competent but unless he surpasses expectations he'll be in the bottom half of Big Ten QBs this season. I'm not going to spend a ton of time on Sherer as he isn't a game-changer. The 5th year senior is solid and reliable. Expect about 58% completions, slightly more TDs than INTs and somewhere between 180-199 yards per game. He'll be required to hand off more than most Big Ten QBs and hit open receivers. As long as he doesn't try to do more than that (be like Brett Favre) he'll be find and this offense will be potent.
The Badgers on Defense
The key figure on the Badger defense is 5 returning starters. They lose three on the line, two linebackers and one in the secondary. That is five of their front seven that need replacing. In 2008 the Badgers finished 5th against the run giving up 133 yards per game and the second most rushing TDs in the conference. Expect more yards to be allowed this year as the front seven is a major question mark. I asked Bucky's 5th Quarter to give me a breakdown of the position groups and here are his thoughts on the defensive line and linebackers.
LBs - Honestly we don't really know what to expect here. Jaevery McFadden is the lone returning starter, while Culmer St. Jean (who has seen playing time, but never played extremely well) takes over in the middle. Kevin Rouse, who has been one of UW's better special teamers the last two seasons, should start on the outside as well, but he wasn't exactly spectacular in the spring.
DL - Again, Wisconsin has to replace three starters, but the coaches love DE J.J. Watt and a number of talented freshmen could provide depth. Still, it will probably be a tough year on the defensive line, a problem that could end up being the Achilles heel of this team.
He doesn't sound too overly optimistic about the 2009 Badger defense. But On Wisconsin is downright negative.
As for the front 7? Oy. Your guess is as good as mine. Transfer J.J. Watt, at DE (and maybe moving inside on passing downs) is expected to be a spark on the line, but he's among three new starters, so who knows? Linebackers McFadden and St. Jean will be fine (McFadden is returning, but moving outside), but I'm worried about Blake Sorensen on the weak side, and it isn't as though the former two will be on any pre-season all-conference teams. As dangerous as the Badger offense could be (with a decent quarterback), the defense is a total question mark, and were I guessing, I would say soft against the run, especially inside.
All of this sounds good for Gopher fans. The secondary should be OK. They lose Allen Langford at CB who was 2nd team All-Big Ten a year ago, but the other three starters return.
B5Q - It looks like Niles Brinkley will be the other starting cornerback, which is kind of a scary thought when you consider how lost he was on the field last season. Still, the coaches insist he has improved immensely. At safety, the Badgers return a lot of experience but not a whole lot of talent. But Jay Valai, Chris Maragos, Aubrey Pleasant and Shane Carter all have logged a ton of playing time and should be more than adequate.
OnW - There aren't any serious questions about the secondary. It should be solid. Henry is a very good cover corner and Brinkley isn't bad. Valai is a big hitter, but in obvious passing downs you might instead see Pleasant at strong safety as he has better size and doesn't give up much in talent. Either Maragos or Carter is a good option at free safety.
While they return the most in the secondary it isn't exactly a scary group. On paper this looks like a defense that most teams will be able to run on and I'll take my chances with Weber/Decker/Green against this secondary as well.
What is going to Happen
Well prior to researching this post I figured we had a coin flips chance of winning this game, maybe slightly better since it is a home game. But upon further review I am more confident now than I was a week ago. If Brewster wants to show that this team is improved and that he is capable of winning with the upgraded talent then he absolutely needs to win this game.
I'm putting this game into the "must win" category for a number of reasons. First and foremost this is year three of the Brewster era and he has yet to win a rivalry game. I'm not overly confident about our trip to Iowa this year and we don't have Michigan on the schedule, which means if he wants to win any rivalry game in his first three years on the job then this is the game he has to do it. Secondly the schedule gets really tough following Purdue and Indiana isn't on the schedule so the Gophers want to get back to a bowl game this is a must win. Lastly the Badgers are a bit down (at least replacing a number of starters) and the Gophers have a good nucleaus returning for 2009, this is in the must win category because it is winable against a good program.
I think the upper-classmen will remember last year's gut-wrenching loss in Madison and you will see a Gopher team that will play a great game. The Gophers avoid any semblance of a 4th quarter melt-down and for the first Big Ten game in TCF Stadium the Axe will be hoisted high as the rouser is sung by 50,300.
Wisconsin - 20
Minnesota - 34
TDG - Does this game make you nervous? The Gophers nearly stole one from you in Madison a year ago and the Badgers have been playing Russian-Roulette with near losses to the Gophers for a while now. Will the bullet finally fall into the chamber or do Badger fans just pencil in the W on their schedule as soon as they are printed?
B5Q - Yeah, this game definitely makes me nervous. The Gophers would have won last year if the game was in Minnesota and now they have a "real" home stadium where it won't be 60% Badger fans. I expect for Minnesota to be favored in this game and have a good shot at finally getting the Axe back.
OnW - I don't know about nervous, but I've marked it as one of two losses in my overly optimistic 10-2 pre-prediction for the season. The Badgers certainly didn't blow Minnesota away the last two games, but have gone 8-2 over the last 10 (including the remarkable finish in Minneapolis in 2005, but that wasn't they only way we might have won that game). I think Minnesota has a good chance in this game, but I think many Badger fans find that idea reprehensible and assume we'll indoctrinate TCF the right way. These are probably the same fans who wanted Alvarez fired in 2002. Don't get me wrong, I think the Badgers can and should win this game, but for now I have it down as a loss (you always have to pick one . . .)
TDG - I'll trade you any Wisconsin native on the Gophers roster for David Gilreath, what will it take?
B5Q - Hmm... backup kicker David Schwerman looks pretty good. Wasn't he on "Friends"? No offense, but the Wisconsin natives on the Minnesota roster are probably there because they weren't good enough to play for the Badgers (unless we're talking hockey and Phil Kessel).
OnW - Gilreath is overrated. He's the third best receiver on the team. Anderson and Toon are the true 1 and 2. Gilreath is speedy, but small, with mediocre hands. For all his speed, he hasn't been a hero in the kicking game (if I remember correctly he ranked 11th in the conference in return yardage last season). Anderson has better size, better hands, and isn't exactly slow; same for Toon.
TDG - The schedule is rather weak in Madison this year. Heading into the Big Ten schedule the Badgers host Northern Illinois, Fresno State and Wofford. Is this weak schedule going to keep the Badgers fresh or will the schedule do them a disservice by not adequately preparing them for Big Ten play?
B5Q - Actually this schedule is a step up from previous years. Northern Illinois and Fresno State will compete for a bowl game and the Bulldogs actually have some of the better running backs in the country. I hate the Wofford game, but it seems like everyone is scheduling FCS schools these days so you might as well play the better ones and Wofford at least is a competitive FCS team. I actually think the first three weeks will help this Badger team. Northern Illinois is a decent Week 1 opponent and Fresno State will beat you up physically (we saw that last year), so the new starters will get tested early while the team should still start 3-0. Wisconsin also ends the season at Hawaii.
OnW - The schedule is very weak. We get Michigan State and Iowa at home, we don't play Penn State or Illinois, and after Ohio State, our toughest road games are Northwestern and Minnesota. No offense to your program or theirs, but in the big picture of tough roadies, those aren't the two that normally get flagged. As for the weak schedule leading up the game at TCF? We open Big Ten play with Michigan State, in Madison, the week before so, I'm not terribly worried about the team being soft when it comes time for the trip west. The out-of-conference games should help keep the team healthy and hopefully will provide a little extra time for both lines to gel and for Sherer to get three more non-critical starts under his belt (though Fresno State has a history of pushing us). What concerns me more is the team's struggles on the road. Look at last season: nearly blew the Fresno State game, did blow the Michigan and Michigan State games, got annihilated in Iowa City, and folded in the Champs Sports Bowl. 2007? Losses at Illinois, at Penn State, at Ohio State, played you guys way closer than was appropriate in the Metrodome, and lost at the Outback Bowl vs. Tennessee. The road has not been kind to Bielema's Badgers.
Thanks be to B5Q and OnW, excellent responses from a couple of excellent blogs.