The 126th edition of major college football’s oldest rivalry will kick off this Saturday. Minnesota is the only thing standing between Wisconsin and a spot in the Big Ten Championship. Also on the line for the Badgers is a chance to even the all-time record, currently led by Minnesota 59-58-8.
For Minnesota, this game represents opportunity. There's a chance here to put an exclamation point on a good season that still feels like it fell short of expectation. A win over a much-hated rival would inject enthusiasm back into the fan base.
And oh yeah, the Gophers would really like Paul Bunyan’s Axe back.
This is a rivalry, but it’s one that is pretty lopsided right now. Even Tracy Claeys was loathe to call it a real rivalry, noting that Minnesota needs to win this weekend to make the rivalry great again. (He didn’t use those exact words. I may have heard that Make [X] Great Again” formulation somewhere though).
Mitch Leidner admitted that he’d gladly give up his 30 wins in exchange for just one win over the Badgers.
When Paul Chryst was a player at Wisconsin, the Badgers lost the Axe to a freshman Rickey Foggie and the Gophers, so he’d probably agree with Leidner.
Wisconsin may not find this game very compelling, but the Badgers are not above trolling their cross-border rivals:
Nobody has ever tweeted that Minnesota beat Wisconsin because @twitter didn't exist the last time Minnesota beat Wisconsin. #AxeWeek pic.twitter.com/4tMcxESn7g— UW-Madison (@UWMadison) November 21, 2016
Andy Greder of the Pioneer Press suggests Minnesota’s pass rush might be the key to a Golden Gophers victory in this game. Both Tracy Claeys and Jay Sawvel see pressure on the quarterback as the most important factor in beating a team that plays “big boy football.” With Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe back on the field and healthy, Minnesota may actually be able to stem the Badgers offensive tide.
On the offensive side of the ball, Drew Wolitarsky needs to have a break-out game for the Gophers to really have any impact on Wisconsin’s defense. More importantly, this game is Wolitarsky’s last chance to make an impact in football before he moves on to his other passion: writing. He’s already published several science-fiction pieces and a six-part short story. (Ed: so jealous right now)
Let’s talk about targeting though. Minnesota drew yet another targeting call against Northwestern last week, prompting outrage from some “fans” over “dirty play.” But Claeys isn’t concerned. He notes that players are taught how to hit legally and safely, and if things happen differently during a game, then it’s appropriate to eject a player for not doing better.
In the same article, a quick note indicates Jerry Kill is still keeping tabs on the program and says Claeys definitely deserves an extension.
Finally, I leave you with this. Give thanks for Rhys Lloyd and wish for a repeat this Saturday: