The Axe game is back on! The Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Wisconsin Badgers will continue their historic rivalry on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium.
For the inside scoop on what we can expect to see from our border rival in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, we turn to Bucky’s 5th Quarter manager Drew Hamm.
The Daily Gopher: Well, well, well, we meet again. Much has changed since we last spoke. The Badgers’ fortunes, for example. What was once thought to be a potential Big Ten West championship season has been derailed by COVID and a three-game losing streak. How are Wisconsin fans coping?
Drew Hamm: ::shoves empty High Life bottles out of the way::
Look, people aren’t happy, however, most Badgers fans have resigned themselves to the thought that this season isn’t canon. It’s basically just an extended fall practice but with live scrimmages against different opponents, right? Since the Wisconsin COVID-19 outbreak earlier in the year this season has just been completely off the rails. Players have been sick/injured, games have been canceled and, to be quite honest, it has seemed like the team has never gotten into a rhythm.
Wisconsin fans have been coping the way most college football cope... calling for people’s jobs, wondering if the backup quarterback would give them a better chance, focusing on recruiting, reveling in our rivals’ losses, etc. This game has felt like the most “real” game on the schedule, at least to me. Nothing about this season has been particularly fun or normal and, while I’m glad the players have gotten to play since most all of them wanted to, this is a season I will soon forget.
Hopefully, it ends with Wisconsin retaining Paul Bunyan’s Axe because that is the most normal thing I can think of when college football is mentioned.
TDG: Graham Mertz’s near perfect performance against Illinois in the season opener feels like a distant memory at this point. What has happened to the redshirt freshman quarterback and the Badgers’ passing game?
DH: I think it has been a combination of Illinois being kinda cheeks and then Mertz playing three of the toughest defenses in the conference (country?) and them making him look like the redshirt freshman he is. At times, Mertz has struggled with his footwork and going through his progressions which has made him easier to defend and also more likely to be sacked/try and run if his first option is covered. Again, Iowa, Indiana, and Northwestern all have excellent defenses and have made better, veteran quarterbacks look bad but... Mertz and the passing offense have looked really bad recently.
You also have to take into account that for most of the past three games he has been without his top two wide receivers, Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis III, who will most likely not play against the Gophers either, which allowed walk-on Jack Dunn to be last week’s leading receiver.
These games will eventually (hopefully) help turn Mertz into the All-B1G quarterback he has the potential of being, but right now there are a number of growing pains that he is going through.
TDG: Wisconsin’s rushing attack has been inert as of late, and was dealt a setback when true freshman running back Jalen Berger reportedly tested positive for COVID last week. What’s the story on the Badgers’ ground game?
DH: When you go from Jonathan Taylor to, well, just about anybody there is going to be a drop-off, the decline has just been steeper than expected at Wisconsin this year. Presumed starter Nakia Watson hasn’t been good enough, senior third down back Garrett Groshek has been exactly who he has always been, which, to be clear, isn’t an every down Big Ten back but still a valuable player, and Berger, a true freshman, had been playing extremely well with limited carries and is now out.
The same caveats about the good defenses that the Badgers have played recently apply, but they weren’t exactly setting the world on fire in their first two games. It would be nice if they could get the ground game going against the Gophers and take some pressure off of Mertz, but we’ll see.
TDG: The Badgers boast one of the best defenses in the country. Again. I hate it. Not even changes at defensive coordinator — from Dave Aranda to Justin Wilcox to Jim Leonhard — have allowed that side of the ball to stumble. How have they been able to reload year in and year out, and what is the key to beating the 2020 edition of the Wisconsin defense?
DH: You may have noticed that there were zero Badgers on the All-B1G first or second teams for defense that the coaches and media selected this week. This year’s team is more of a really solid unit as opposed to one with a handful of star playmakers. Wisconsin has been somewhat susceptible to the big pass play, which isn’t a change from years past, and they are most likely thanking their lucky stars that Rashod Bateman is not playing on Saturday.
If the Gophers’ offensive line can give Tanner Morgan time and some deep routes can develop, then Minnesota could have some success on offense. Mohamed Ibrahim will still “get his” but the Badgers run defense has been extremely stout this year so he’ll probably find the sledding a little tougher than usual.
As far as how the unit has managed to stay solid year in and year out, the recruiting has definitely taken an uptick recently, which has helped immensely, and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has turned into one of the top assistants in the country.
TDG: Your final score prediction and MVP for the Badgers, please.
DH: Man, I have absolutely ZERO feeling for how this game will go. The Badgers haven’t scored in double digits in, I think, 1,000 weeks (do NOT fact check me) but the fact that this is a big rivalry game and the last chance for some of the seniors to play at Camp Randall Stadium leads me to believe this week will be different.
I don’t feel confident at all about this pick, but I will never, ever pick the Gophers to win anything EVEN IF THERE’S A FIRE, so let’s say Wisconsin wins 17-13. I wouldn’t even put someone else’s money on this game though.