It might be a bitter border rivalry, but Wisconsin fans actually should feel grateful for the Gophers football team’s resurgence this year.
The Badgers are trying to climb back into the BCS picture, and they are running out of chances to impress.
Saturday, the Badgers will be at TCF Bank Stadium taking on a Gophers team that sits just outside the Associated Press media poll in 26th and is 23rd in the USA Today coaches poll.
Wisconsin ranks 16th in the AP poll and 17th in the coaches but still sits 19th in the latest BCS rankings. The Gophers, incidentally, are ranked 25th.
To gain an at-large BCS berth, the Badgers need to climb into the top 14 of the rankings. They close with Penn State and don’t figure to leapfrog Ohio State for the Leaders Division title and a Big Ten championship game berth, so Saturday likely will be their last chance to prove themselves against a ranked opponent.
“I think they’re an underrated football team,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said of Wisconsin on Sunday during his weekly appearance on 830-AM. “I don’t think many people — the way they run the ball and the way they’re playing defense — would want to play them right now.”
The Gophers had a bye week to get ready for the Badgers and watched them crush Indiana 51-3. Wisconsin had 554 rushing yards, but the more impressive number was the three points allowed. The Hoosiers had scored at least 28 in every game this season, including their 42-39 loss to the Gophers.
It marked the fifth time this year the Badgers have held an opponent without a touchdown. In scoring defense, they rank fifth in the nation at 14.0 points per game, one spot behind Michigan State (13.2).
Those are the two final regular-season opponents for the Gophers, and they are the toughest teams on their schedule.
Michigan State beat Nebraska 41-28 on Saturday, shrinking the Gophers’ already slim chances of reaching the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. Those hopes are still alive, but the Gophers must win their final two games and have Northwestern, winless in conference play, upset Michigan State this week.
Of course, the Gophers don’t have to reach the conference title game to make this season a success. They already have eight victories for the first time since 2003, when they went 10-3 under Glen Mason.
That also was the last year they beat Wisconsin. The Badgers have claimed Paul Bunyan’s Axe nine years in a row since then, and the early betting lines list Wisconsin as 14½-point favorites to do it again.
The Gophers and Badgers are both 8-2, but consider the results against their two other common opponents besides Indiana:
• Iowa beat the Gophers 23-7 at TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 28 and lost at home to Wisconsin 28-9 on Nov. 2.
• The Gophers won at Northwestern 20-17 on Oct. 19, a week after Wisconsin crushed the Wildcats 35-6 in Madison.
The Badgers have the Big Ten’s second- and third-leading rushers in Melvin Gordon (130.6 yards per game) and James White (115.6), respectively.
When teams stack the box looking to slow down Wisconsin’s running game, quarterback Joel Stave is a pretty good play-action passer, and Jared Abbrederis ranks fourth in the conference with 84.9 receiving yards per game.
Wisconsin has had a hard time gaining traction in the polls after losing on a blown officiating call against Arizona State and 31-24 to undefeated Ohio State.
“To be honest with you, right now, their only loss in my opinion has been to Ohio State,” Kill told 830-AM. “Because the Arizona State game — that was a situation that was unique, that’s the best way I can put it. I think they’re a very, very good football team, and I think they’re the most underrated defensive team in the country.”
As soon as the Indiana game ended, Wisconsin’s players had their sights set on the Gophers.
“For our senior class, the axe has never left our locker room, and we are not going to be that senior class that lets it leave,” senior linebacker Conor O’Neill said. “I know we are going to have guys watching film tonight, tomorrow, all week. It is going to be a bloodbath and it is going to be fun.”