It's almost #GameWeek and The Daily Gopher's game by game previews of Gophers opponents roll on. We have reached the end of the road, and the game that may make or break the Gopher season. It's time once again for the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Location: Madison, Wisconsin
Conference: Big Ten (West Division)
Notable Alumni: Dale Chihuly, Joan Cusak, Boz Skags, Jim Lovell, Andy Katz, Phil Hellmuth, Ron Dayne, Bud Selig, Chris Chelios, Harry Craine
Bill Connelly Preview Link: Here!
Last season was one of high highs and low lows for the Badgers. Wisconsin started off the year losing a tough game in Houston to LSU. After sweeping through the rest of their non-conference schedule, The Badgers opened the Big Ten schedule in Evanston and promptly played a terrible game in losing to Northwestern. The the easy part of the Badgers Big Ten schedule kicked in. Wisconsin would win six games in a row, including a blowout win over Nebraska where Melvin Gordon set the single game NCAA rushing mark. Of course, that held up for all of a week. The last week of the regulars season turned into a winner takes all game between the Gophers and Badgers in Madison. Minnesota jumped out to a 17-3 lead and appeared in control, but then Wisconsin found their second gear, and took over beating Minnesota 34-24. Wisconsin went to the Big Ten Championship Game the next week in Indianapolis against Ohio State, where suddenly the Gophers were quite happy they were not there after the Badgers got 59-donuted. Gary Andersen left, Barry Alvarez coached the Bowl game...again, and Wisconsin would beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl to finish the season at 11-3
Does Gary Andersen count? Depends on who you ask. Some Badger fans are sad he is gone, but a whole loot more are not,and are just fine with Paul Chryst making the coaching decisions. The one loss that Badgers will miss will be obviously Melvin Gordon. Gordon was a total stud in his Badger career, and after 2606 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground, even with the Badgers stable of running backs you won't be able to make up those stats. The Badgers lose tight end Sam Arneson who was their second leading receiver in 2014, but that doesn't say much when he only had 29 catches for 389 yards. The much bigger loss, even more so than Gordon will be offensive linemen Rob Havenstein and Kyle Costigan who have both moved onto the NFL. Both were All-Americans a year ago, and with some injury issues this fall, the Badgers are hurting in trying to replace them both.
On defense, Wisconsin will miss two defensive linemen who played significant time a year ago in Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring. A bigger loss though may be linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch who combined for 138 tackles, 27 tackles for loss, and 11.5 sacks. In the secondary the only loss is safety Penel Jean. The Badgers will lose Kenzel Doe as their return man, but he did not impress terribly in that position in 2014 anyways.
Whether Wisconsin wants it or not, the biggest returner for the Badgers and the player who may make or break their season is quarterback Joel Stave. Stave showed glimmers a year ago, but overall was not amazing. Badger fans hope that with Chryst back in the fold that he can mentor Stave and improve upon his 1,350 yards and 9 touchdowns to ten interceptions ratio. Corey Clement returns at running back and takes over the main load of carries from Gordon. Clement was very good in the RB2 mold a year ago rushing for 949 yards and 9 touchdowns in giving Gordon a breather. Expect those numbers to at least double this season. Wisconsin returns Alex Erickson who was their leading receiver a year ago. He had 55 catches for 772 yards. Wisconsin is definitely rebuilding on the offensive line, but with Tyler Marz and Dan Voltz still around, Wisconsin can trust two pieces at least.
On defense, the Badgers will be looking to nose tackle Arthur Goldberg to play a bigger role in 2015 after just recording 19 tackles a year ago. The biggest piece of the linebacker puzzle will also look to improve in 2015. Vince Biegel had a fairly good 2014 recording 47 tackles, but a whopping 16.5 for a loss. Most of the Badger secondary returns led by Micheal Caputo and Sojourn Shelton. They both had six pass breakups a year ago. On special teams, both the kicker and punter return, but the headliner is kicker Rafael Gaglianone. The portly kicker is the only one in the Big Ten who may outweigh the Gophers kicker, but he has just as good a leg as well.
With Paul Chryst back in the mix, can he be the quarterback whisperer to Joel Stave? If Stave can finally figure it out, the Badgers definitely have the inside track to Indy.
Secondly, can the Badger offensive line rebuild in time to keep Stave healthy and let Clement do his best Gordon impersonation? If they are hurting in the season like they are in camp so far, it could be a tough going early for Wisconsin.
Thirdly, What Badger team will show up in the opener against Alabama? Wisconsin has handled SEC teams will recently just losing to LSU in the opener last season before defeating Auburn in their bowl game. Can Wisconsin keep it close against the Tide, or will Bama just be too much with their tough front seven against that depleted line of Wisconsin. (I'm taking the latter).
What Does It All Mean For Minnesota?
The Gophers had the lead late in the second quarter in Madison a year ago, and then crapped the bed. Eventually Minnesota has got to get over the hump and finally win one of these games against the Badgers. As always, Minnesota will need to establish the run and put pressure on the Badgers linebackers. if Mitch Leidner can find some holes, he must take advantage and take whatever Wisconsin will give you. As we have seen recently, the margin for error is very slim, any mistakes will haunt.
On defense, the Gophers need to stop Clement and make Stave throw the ball. Then they need to get to Stave. If he isn't being driven to the TCF Bank Stadium turf any chance Minnesota has, then things may not work out well for the Gophers.
Finally, Minnesota needs to make a special teams play. Whether that's a long kick return, or a forced fumble on a punt return, Minnesota needs to shorten the field and make the Badgers play from behind if possible.
The damn axe will be back in town, and Gopher fans REALLY want to keep it this year. To do that, Minnesota will need to play nearly flawless and take advantage of a loud and rowdy home crowd. They must limit the Badgers running game and be in Stave's face all afternoon long. Offensively they need to score early and not turn the ball over. More than one turnover, and that Axe is going back to Madison. I really want to pick Minnesota is this game....I really do. But....until they can show that they can get this stupid monkey off their back, I have to make them prove it to me before I can give them the benefit of the doubt. My heart sincerely hopes I am very wrong, but my prediction is Wisconsin 31, Gophers 27.