Minneapolis, MN (SportsNetwork.com) - Paul Bunyan's Axe is up for grabs one more time, as the 16th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers come calling on the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The two long-time Big Ten border rivals are meeting for the 123rd time, with the Gophers laying claim to a slim 58-56-8 series advantage. The Badgers, however, have won the last nine matchups.
Wisconsin is the two-time defending Big Ten Conference champions, but it will need to win out and get some help to reach its third consecutive title tilt as it trails undefeated Ohio State in the Leaders Division by a game with only two to play. The Buckeyes own the tie-breaker thanks to a 31-24 win over Wisconsin back in late September.
UW is in the midst of a five-game win streak, with its latest victory being a 51-3 rout of visiting Indiana last Saturday. The Badgers have played very well away from home late in the season the last several years, going 11-4 in November road games since the start of the 2006 campaign.
Minnesota sports an identical record to that of Wisconsin (8-2), but both of its losses have come in conference. The Golden Gophers are currently second in the Big Ten's Legends Division behind Michigan State (9-1, 6-0), which has already secured at least a share of the division crown. The two teams meet next week in East Lansing, but there won't be anything to play for other than pride and a potential better second-tier bowl game for the Gophers should they lose this game, or the Spartans win at Northwestern on Saturday.
The Badgers used a bruising rushing attack to hammer the Hoosiers into submission last weekend, churning out a massive 554 yards in what turned out to be a 48-point laugher. James White ran for a career-high 205 yards, which included a 93-yard scoring jaunt, while Melvin Gordon finished with 145 yards and a TD of his own. The team's rushing total fell just 10 yards shy of the school record, which ironically enough was set in last year's meeting with the Hoosiers. Even reserve back Corey Clement got in on the action, amassing 108 yards and two TDs on only 11 carries, while standout receiver Jared Abbrederis turned three totes into 86 yards and a pair of scores. QB Joel Stave completed only seven of his 15 passes for 122 yards, with three of them going to Jacob Pedersen for 92 yards.
The UW defense allowed just 224 total yards to the Indiana offense, which turned the ball over twice in a little more than 22 minutes of possession time. Chris Borland paced the Badgers with 10 tackles, while Sojourn Shelton recorded a pick. The UW defense was not credited with a sack, despite the Hoosiers attempting 30 passes.
You don't achieve the kind of success the Badgers have this season without performing consistently well in all phases of the game, and they enter this clash sporting the third-best scoring offense in the Big Ten (38.5 ppg) and the second-best scoring defense (14.0 ppg). They are second in both total offense (505.8 ypg) and total defense (288.3 ypg), and the effort on the ground, both their own (307.9 ypg) and defending the opposition (99.3 ypg) has been top-notch as well.
Currently, Gordon (1,306 yards, 12 TDs) and White (1,156 yards, 12 TDs) rank second and third, respectively in the league in rushing, while Stave checks in fifth with his 194.8 passing ypg. He has thrown 16 TD passes against eight interceptions, and Abbrederis ranks fourth in the conference with 54 grabs for 849 yards and six scores.
Borland paces the defense with 80 tackles, 22 more than his closest teammate, and he also leads the team with 7.0 TFL and 4.0 sacks. Shelton has four of UW's nine interceptions.
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen is well aware of the fight his team will likely encounter this week.
"This is going to be a great challenge. You look at it, and to my calculations, there's 28 teams with eight wins in the country, and two of them are playing each other, and four of them are in the Big Ten," he continued. "It's a great opportunity for us to be able to match up against a quality opponent this late in the year, and on top of that, have it be a rivalry game, something that all Badgers are fired up about."
Minnesota was idle last weekend, giving the team additional time to game plan for this important contest.
The Gophers don't have the most dynamic offense in the Big Ten, but they hold their own in averaging 30.7 ppg. Their performance on the ground has been far more effective than that of the pass, as the team averages 218.5 ypg and has scored 23 TDs via the rush. David Cobb needs just 58 yards to become the first UM back since 2006 to reach 1,000 rushing yards in a season.
The Golden Gophers rank last in the league in passing (149.4 ypg, 10 TDs). Philip Nelson has been the team's primary signal caller, and he has completed 57.2 percent of his passes for 1,128 yards, nine TDs and four interceptions. Derrick Engel has a team-high 25 receptions for 401 yards and five scores.
The Minnesota defense is permitting 23.4 ppg, with foes picking up 147.0 ypg on the ground and 233.8 ypg through the air. Despite the team's solid record, the unit has made very few big plays, logging only nine picks and 12 sacks. That said, Minnesota ranks third in the conference in turnover margin (+6).
Damien Wilson sits atop the team's tackles list with 57, while seven others have at least 35 stops. Theiren Cochran has 6.5 sacks, and is tied for the team lead in TFL (9.0) with Ra'Shede Hageman.
The importance of this game, both in terms of this season and in the rivalry, isn't lost on a guy like Nelson.
"It's the most important game because it's the next game. It's a big rivalry and we are really looking forward to it."