It’s Axe Week, but I don’t need to tell you that. The Gophers haven’t swung the Axe since 2003, but I REALLY don’t need to tell you that. Every Gopher fan wants the streak to come to a merciful end. For that to happen, Minnesota will need to topple Wisconsin on the road, which is no small feat. Can the Gophers pull it off? God, I hope so. To give us in the inside scoop on the Badgers, we turn to Jake Kocorowski, an editor for SB Nation’s Wisconsin blog, Bucky’s 5th Quarter.
The Daily Gopher: There was quite a bit of moaning prior to this season — and even during the season, in the case of Barry Alvarez — in regards to the Badgers' tough conference slate, which included consecutive games against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, and Nebraska. But Wisconsin survived that stretch with a 3-2 record and are closing in on a division title. How were the Badgers able to weather that storm?
Jake Kocorowski: Wisconsin's defense has been the strength of this team this season, and it carried the team in that stretch, and really, all year. In 2015, Wisconsin led the nation in scoring defense with 13.7 points per game surrendered. This year, they're fifth in the nation, allowing 13.4. The combination of almost all of its starters in the front seven, plus an overachieving secondary, has solidified a squad that held high scoring offenses Michigan to 14 points and Ohio State to 23 in regulation (despite both being losses).
There's also a discipline and a "next man up" mentality that is pertinent throughout the team. Wisconsin lost two of its three starting-caliber inside linebackers in Jack Cichy and Chris Orr for the season but Leon Jacobs and former walk-on Ryan Connelly have filled in alongside T.J. Edwards to not allow the defense to miss a beat. Lubern Figaro stepped up huge when nickelback Natrell Jamerson went down with injury in the second game of the season, and we had a joke at B5Q about Brett Connors (another former walk-on -- #BrettConnorsBacksUpTheWorld) because he was the back-up at every single offensive line position on the depth chart (and he also started several games at center while Jon Dietzen and Micah Kapoi were injured with Michael Deiter sliding over to left guard).
The maturity on this team, despite having only 13 seniors, has guided this team as well. After every win, the players state they'll dwell on the prior game's outcome for the evening, then turn the page to the next opponent the next game. It's served them well this year.
TDG: The Badgers have been rotating quarterbacks Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook, and that formula appears to be working well for Wisconsin. How has Paul Chryst handled the rotation in terms of playing time for each quarterback, and what are the key differences between the two signal callers?
JK: Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook has started since the Michigan State game and is the future of the position group. The southpaw has a great ability to throw an accurate deep ball with nice placement, and he has a poise admirable for just a second-year player.
Houston has a better arm and is more mobile than Hornibrook (in my opinion), and he's been used efficiently as a nice boost or change of pace at times against Iowa and most recently last week at Purdue -- where he led four of Wisconsin's six offensive scoring drives. Chryst actually stuck with his redshirt senior in consecutive drives during that second quarter, and the quarterback admitted he enjoyed being back in that rhythm.
Mind you, the two have shown inconsistencies -- which is why there's this carousel going on. Both threw interceptions that could have been costly in the fourth quarter against Nebraska, and the offense has stalled out at times with them at the helm. Of late, though, the duo have started working more efficiently.
TDG: Running back Corey Clement eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards on the season with a 112-yard performance against Purdue, and the Badger offense is averaging 200.7 rushing yards per game. But S&P+ is not too impressed, ranking their rushing offense as 59th in college football. How would you evaluate the Badgers' rushing attack this season? And what will the Gopher defense need to do to put the brakes on Clement?
JK: Many, including myself, thought the rushing attack would regain its form this season after its poor performance last year (94th in the FBS in yards per game). However, injuries to the offensive line and running back really hampered the run game from Georgia State through the Michigan game. All-American candidate Dan Voltz retired a week before the season started due to his ongoing issues, and both Dietzen and Kapoi -- who were supposed to solidify that left guard spot Voltz was going to anchor -- also were injured in the first couple of games. That made Deiter move over to left guard, with Connors taking over at center. Clement himself injured his ankle against Akron before halftime and missed the Georgia State match-up.
Ever since the bye week after the poor showing against Michigan, Wisconsin's running game has started to regain its form -- rushing for over 200 yards in four of its last six games. The offensive line has solidified really into one set line instead of multiple combinations working during the game (though Kapoi did come in for Dietzen at left guard against Purdue). There's also been multiple contributors stepping up in the backfield. Senior former walk-on and team captain Dare Ogunbowale rushed for 100 yards twice in the past four weeks (Nebraska and Illinois), while redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw's run for over 200 yards in the past three games and is gaining more reps. Throw in the jet sweeps with some wide receivers (or Clement, as seen against Illinois), and there's signs of a return to form.
Minnesota needs to be physical at the line of scrimmage and stuff UW on first and second down. Clement's been the workhorse of the group, but at times hasn't been patient with waiting for his blocks or trying to make things happen when nothing's there. Force them into third-and-long situations, and the Gophers' pass-rush and its 33 sacks this season could have a field day against a Wisconsin offensive line that at times has been vulnerable to allowing sacks.
TDG: I think most people outside of Wisconsin assumed that replacing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda with Justin Wilcox would mean a step back for the Badger defense. Clearly that was wishful thinking. The Badgers haven't missed a beat, with college football's third-ranked defense according to S&P+. What have been the keys to sustaining that elite level of defensive play, and what players have been most valuable to this unit?
JK: It's a combination of smart coaching by Wilcox and that attitude of "next man up" that's so cliche but very prevalent in the locker room. Wilcox didn't change the base 3-4 scheme from last year and plays to his players' strengths (like all good coaches do). With the injuries at all three levels of the defense, those that have stepped up have kept up that high degree of success. Sophomore nose tackle Olive Sagapolu's only played in six games this year and was on the anchor of the middle of the defense (he'll also miss the Minnesota game), but defensive end Conor Sheehy has performed quite well sliding inside.
Looking at the front seven, outside linebackers T.J. Watt (eight sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss) and Vince Biegel (two sacks, though the numbers aren't there this year) pop out. Watt had an amazing pass breakup and pick-six to break open the game last week. Connelly and Edwards form a potent duo at inside linebacker. The most underrated part of this group is the defensive line with juniors Sheehy, Alec James, and Chikwe Obasih, who have allowed the backers to make plays all year.
The front seven has stuffed opposing offenses' running games, but the surprise has been the secondary under former walk-on/All-American/10-year NFL veteran Jim Leonhard, who returned to his alma mater this season. Wisconsin lost three starters from last year, but the development of safeties Leo Musso and D'Cota Dixon (both with four interceptions and a penchant for big plays) has solidified a position group with big question marks entering the year.
TDG: It's no secret that Wisconsin has dominated this rivalry for the last decade, with 12 consecutive wins over Minnesota. Obviously, ending that streak would be huge for the Gophers. But has this game become business as usual for the Badgers and their fans? Is this still a meaningful game from your perspective?
JK: Talking with a few players earlier on Monday, the rivalry and the Axe are still immensely meaningful. The loss of the Heartland Trophy to Iowa last season was an eye-opener and a feeling they don't want to have at the end of the game on Saturday. The leadership on each Wisconsin team has reiterated each year the importance of retaining the Axe, and that's been passed down to each generation of Badgers players.
TDG: I'm not going to waste a question on a prediction. You're going to pick the Badgers, and I don't blame you. On paper — coupled with that humiliating streak — there isn't much reason to think the Gophers can pull the upset at Camp Randall, aside from the fact that weird things have been known to happen in rivalry games. So instead, what are your keys to another Badger victory, in your opinion?
JK: The keys lie at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Wisconsin needs to neutralize the Minnesota defense that has recorded 33 sacks and held opponents to under 120 yards on the ground this year. The Badgers have started to get momentum in its running game, which has helped their offense start to produce more. We'll see what head coach Paul Chryst has up his sleeves this week.
Defensively, UW's only given up 98.3 yards [per game] on the ground, and they'll have to contain Minnesota's ground game that averages 191.7 yards per contest. Stop Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, and it could be a long day for the Gophers' offense.
Thank you to Jake for blessing us with his sacred knowledge of all things Sconie! Best of luck to any Gopher fans heading to Camp Randall this weekend — and may God have mercy on your soul. Mercy for the Gophers would be nice, too. Or maybe it’s the Badgers who will need the mercy...