What makes a good rivalry? A border-battle? Competitiveness? A trophy? Wisconsin vs Minnesota, the longest running rivalry in Division 1 NCAA football, has fit only two of these categories in recent years. Today’s game was no exception. Wisconsin has won the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe each year since 2004, with varying degrees of difficulty. Not since the mid-2000’s though, has Minnesota brought any significant challenge to the boys in Red.
Today in Camp Randall Stadium, a pumped up Badger football team took the field after whalloping Purdue the previous weekend. Minnesota, coming off a tough loss to Northwestern at home, was injured and depleted, leaving many fans and pundits alike to doubt any chance for a Gopher win. I was inclined to think the same, but after a very slow start to the game, I wasn’t sure. By the end however, the 38-13 victory was never in doubt.
Wisconsin drove down the field on its first possession, using a long pass to Abbrederis to set up a first-of-the-season wildcat play run by James White into the end zone. This was immediately followed by a successful scoring drive by Minnesota, led by true freshman first-time starting QB Phillip Nelson (13/24, 149, 2 TDs, 2 ints). Minnesota missed the extra point, leaving Wisconsin with a 7-6 advantage.
After two quick scoring drives things slowed down. Both teams exhibited a strong ability to limit the run, and receivers dropped passes, resulting in punts for both teams. Somewhat to my surprise, Minnesota’s front four started off stout, denying any significant ground gains, and sacking Joel Stave who continues to struggle getting the ball out quickly.
After a second James White touchdown, this time a 34 yarder towards the end of the second quarter, Wisconsin headed into halftime with a 14-6 lead. This is when things really began to open up for the Badger backs. After a strong start by Minnesota’s D, fatigue and what I can only guess was low morale set in, as the Wisconsin offensive-line opened wide holes for White and Montee Ball to run through. Like a hot knife through butter, the Wisconsin running-backs had their way with Minnesota, particularly in the fourth quarter, powering the Badger attack to 5 total touchdowns.
The unquestioned star of the day was James White. Typically playing second-fiddle to star Montee Ball, the coaches gave James more touches, including from the wildcat, than normal. James embraced his chances, running for 175 yards on 15 carries (11.7 avg) and 3 touchdowns. Montee, who struggled early on, arrived late with 166 yards on 24 carries (6.9 avg) for 2 touchdowns.
Joel Stave looked decent throughout the game, although he did miss wide-open receivers on a few plays, most of which ended up in drops or missed 3rd down conversion opportunities. I see this as a sign of inexperience, which should improve over time.
On the defensive side of the Ball, the Badgers looked more vulnerable against Minnesota than Purdue. Granted there were two turnovers which helped, Minnesota QB Philip Nelson reminded Badger fans that our D struggles against scrambling quarterbacks. It seemed as though the Badgers weren’t prepared, left wondering how to handle the option attack from Minny. However, over time things settled, and Minnesota was forced to throw more to make up points. This didn’t bode well for the true freshman, and Badger defenders were able to stuff downhill running and put pressure on the QB.
In the end, the Wisconsin running attack was too much for an injured Minnesota squad. Defense was a key early, but a torrent of points came in the fourth quarter sealing the victory for Bucky. Big props to James White who reminded everyone that he could start for any team in the country, helping the Badgers to have one of if not the best backfields in the country. Even though Minnesota hasn’t been a strong competitor to Wisconsin in recent years, its still the Axe game, and it means something.
Wisconsin is now 6-2 on the season, and seems to improve every week. Up next, Michigan State.