MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Just three weeks ago, Minnesota and Wisconsin looked like they were not that far apart anymore.
The Gophers had won all their nonconference games, an important step in the long-lagging program’s development. The defending Big Ten champion Badgers, meanwhile, slogged through September with a loss and three ugly wins, missing their usual offensive mojo.
But on Saturday, they’ll meet again in familiar circumstances. The Gophers’ run defense was trounced by Iowa and Northwestern, and they turned the ball over at an alarming rate. The Badgers, after blowing a 20-3 lead in losing at Nebraska, used Illinois to get back on track and then rolled over Purdue with 645 total yards.
“I think the demise of Wisconsin football was greatly exaggerated earlier this year,” Badgers linebacker Chris Borland told reporters. “We had a lot of changes and we played some good teams and didn’t play our best. But nothing has changed. We’re still the same guys and we do things the same way, so we expect success.”
Yes, order has been restored. The Badgers were 17½-point favorites when the betting lines opened this week. The Gophers are seeking their first win in Madison since Bill Clinton’s first term as president. They haven’t paraded Paul Bunyan’s Axe around Camp Randall Stadium since 1994.
“In a rivalry game, if you don’t ever win it’s not really a rivalry,” Gophers senior linebacker Mike Rallis said.
For the last two decades, the distance between these teams from bordering states has been so much more than the four-plus hours by car that separate their campuses. The Gophers actually still have a 58-55 all-time lead with eight ties.
The Badgers have won 15 of the last 17 meetings, though, and can match the longest winning streak in the most-played series in major college football history by beating the Gophers this weekend. Minnesota won nine in a row from 1933-41, but victory hasn’t gone to the maroon and gold since 2003.
To stop the skid, they’ll have to stop the Badgers’ running game or at least slow Montee Ball down a little. Ball didn’t do much in the first few games, but against Purdue he rumbled for a career-high 247 yards and three touchdowns. The Gophers let Iowa’s Mark Weisman rush for 177 yards and a score, and Northwestern’s Venric Mark gained 182 yards and reached the end zone twice.
“Obviously any time you play Wisconsin you’ve got to bring your big-boy pants,” Rallis said.
Coach Jerry Kill put the onus on his defense to cut down on the mental mistakes that were rampant in the last two games.
“It isn’t complicated. You’ve got to do your job and you’ve got to fit in the right gap and you’ve got to do your responsibility and not try to do somebody else’s,” said Kill, who suffered another seizure after the Northwestern game but didn’t miss any time with his team,
The Gophers are actually second in the Big Ten and ninth in the FBS against the pass, with just 162.5 yards allowed per game. But that’s merely a secondary skill against the Badgers.
“We have a tendency to stick to what we do best, and it ends up being triumphant,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. “We’re not where we need to be, but to see the rewards of some changes we made and to see the way our kids are playing is very, very rewarding. It’s almost like now we have this attitude of let’s just go out and prove what we have that much more.”
Bielema has been an admirer of Kill since his days at Northern Illinois, so he predictably piled on the praise again this week.
“You can flip on the film and see the improvement,” Bielema said of the Gophers.
That’s clear. They’ve already passed their victory total from each of the last two years. But to get back to the point where they were at least annually competitive with the Badgers if they weren’t beating them, the Gophers still have a lot to prove.
Injuries have become a big problem for the offense. Quarterback MarQueis Gray returned from his sprained left ankle and knee against Northwestern, only to aggravate the ankle injury. He could play, but perhaps at wide receiver, where Isaac Fruechte and Devin Crawford-Tufts are hurt and questionable for the game.
Left tackle Ed Olson, their most-experienced offensive lineman is injured as well and unlikely to play. Communication was a major issue for the Gophers last week. They fumbled seven times, losing two.
“We could’ve had a lot bigger plays, but there was always one person who’d mess up every play, that would stop the play dead,” said center Zac Epping, one of 13 Wisconsinites on the roster, including two starters.
The Badgers have six Minnesotans, including starting defensive tackle Beau Allen. They’ve won these eight games in a row by an average of 15½ points, scoring nearly 40 points each time in the process. Wisconsin’s overall home winning streak is at 20, the second-longest active run in major college football behind LSU’s 21.
The last time the Badgers lost at Camp Randall Stadium was Nov. 17, 2009, to Iowa.
“We want to win this Saturday. The 21 games, if it comes, is a byproduct of winning. We’re not into streaks. We’re not into anything more,” Bielema said.
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