The Gophers haven’t touched Paul Bunyan’s Axe since 2003. That’s 12 consecutive losses to their border rival, the Wisconsin Badgers.
The longest-running rivalry game in major college football has become a broken record. Wisconsin’s 12-game winning streak is the longest by either team in the 125-year history of this game.
The Badgers also have won 19 of the previous 21 meetings and enter as heavy favorites to keep the trophy. Here are five key developments that need to happen for the Gophers to leave Madison with the Axe:
Win third downs
The Badgers lead the nation in time of possession at 35 minutes, 24 seconds per game. That means they have the ball, on average, 10 minutes more than their opponent. That’s a product of their success on third down. Their offense sustains drives, and their defense forces a lot of three-and-out series (36.6 percent of opponents’ possessions have been three-and-out).
The Gophers converted only four of 13 third-down opportunities in their victory over Northwestern last week. If they struggle in that area again Saturday, their defense will run out of gas. The Gophers must be able to convert on third down at a decent rate to give their defense a breather. Wisconsin’s power running game wears down defenses that get little help from their offense.
Win the line
The Gophers defensive linemen had their best showing of the season against Northwestern. Led by tackle Steven Richardson, they controlled the line of scrimmage and disrupted the Wildcats offense with a consistent pass rush.
They’re facing a better offensive line this week, but the Gophers front four needs to hold its own again to free up linebackers to swarm running back Corey Clement.
Speaking of Clement, the Gophers can’t afford to let him have a major impact. If Clement rushes for his average (104) or better, the Gophers are in trouble. That’s how the Badgers control the clock and win games: stout defense and running the ball.
Wisconsin is averaging 233 yards rushing in the past six games. The Gophers are third in the Big Ten in rushing defense. The outcome of this matchup will go a long way toward determining the final score.
The Badgers rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and third-down defense. They allow only 13.4 points per game, and that includes having faced two of the top offenses in the country in Ohio State and Michigan.
Scoring points won’t be easy. Offensive coordinator Jay Johnson needs to be creative in his play-calling to avoid falling into a run-run-pass rut. And both Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks need to produce as a duo to keep the game plan balanced.
If the Badgers negate Smith and Brooks, or if the Gophers fall behind early and have to throw, that will put a lot of pressure on Mitch Leidner and his receivers to bail them out. That’s not a desirable formula.
Avoid big mistakes
The Gophers remain in the top 10 nationally in turnover margin at plus-11. Takeaways can be their equalizer. If they get reasonable production from their running game and create a turnover or two, they will give themselves a chance.
It sounds simple, but the Gophers have to be solid on special teams to change field position and not give the ball away. The Badgers are too good defensively and too efficient on offense to play a sloppy game against them and expect to win.