The Gophers and Badgers have met 128 times in their long and storied football rivalry, but the simple fact is Saturday’s contest pitting No. 8 Minnesota (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) and No. 12 Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2) is the biggest game ever held in Minneapolis between the two teams.
The only bigger game in the rivalry, one could argue, was the 1962 game in Madison — when the Badgers were ranked No. 3 and defeated the No. 5 Gophers 14-9 — but the stakes for this game make it just as important. Saturday will be only the third time, including No. 7 Wisconsin beating No. 10 Minnesota 20-6 in 1942, that both teams were ranked in the Top 15 when they squared off.
And college football is a longer, more grueling season these days. The Gophers played only nine games in 1942 and 1962, but have a real shot to play 14 this season.
Coach P.J. Fleck broke down the magnitude of Saturday’s contest.
“We haven’t won 10-plus regular-season games since 1905,” he said. “… That is a long time. And also, we haven’t won seven Big Ten games, ever, in the history of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football. There is a lot of special things happening. We need everybody to show up on game day. Bring your family, bring your kids, bring your grandkids. It is an experience nobody is going to want to miss.
“It is one of those type of events that goes into the Super Bowl events, those parties, the downtown events. It is like that. Not just University of Minnesota Golden Gopher alum, not just fans, bring people who aren’t. Just bring people that we can make them Golden Gopher fans.”
Yes, this feels like the kind of contest that makes a program. The Gophers have done everything they can to prove that they are one of the best college football teams in the country.
They rank No. 10 in the country in total defense, allowing 300.1 yards per game, and their 35.9 points scored per game ranks 16th.
In the Big Ten, they are No. 2 in total offense (460 yards per game) and No. 3 in total defense (298.9 yards) during conference play.
They have earned the right to play Ohio State for the conference championship, and the only team standing in their way is the Badgers at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We know the rivalry is healthy and back,” Fleck said. “Who could have asked for something better? That is what is so fun about this. You have one of the biggest rivalries in college football on Saturday, [ESPN’s] “College GameDay” is coming to the Twin Cities, and now you have two ranked opponents and you’re playing for the Big Ten West [title] with a chance to go to Indy [for the Big Ten Championship Game] and possibly the Rose Bowl in a worst-case scenario type of game. Who could have drawn that up this year? We were picked sixth in the West.”
Can U stop Taylor?
The Badgers will be as tough an opponent as the Gophers have seen all season — in Big Ten play, they rank fifth in offense (413 yards) and sixth in defense (326.6 yards).
“They’re a [Badgers coach] Paul Chryst, Wisconsin football team. They’re tough, they run the football, they play-action you, their receivers are really, really good this year,” Fleck said. “The quarterback [Jack Coan] is playing at a very high level. Their defense is one of the best in the country. You know we have a ton of respect for the rivalry and a ton of respect for the University of Wisconsin and what they do and how they do things.”
Still, everyone knows that stopping Wisconsin will come down to stopping running back Jonathan Taylor.
The junior running back ranks No. 2 in the country in rushing yards with 1,685 and he has run for over 200 yards in each of his past three contests — all wins for the Badgers.
Fleck broke down the challenge of trying to contain Taylor.
“Outside of dressing somebody up who looks like him, not really, that is about all you can do,” the Gophers’ third-year coach said. “We’re going to do everything we can to rotate fresh [defensive] backs in. We’re going to use maybe some bigger guys back there as well. But [Taylor] is so special.
“I think he is one of the best players, if not the best player in college football. He has proven that over the course of his three years. He is a phenomenal running back. He has great vision. His offensive line takes care of him. You can tell they do it for each other. It’s a special unit, a special group and he is a special football player.”
The Gophers have had some success against Taylor under Fleck.
In 2017, when the Badgers shut out the Gophers 31-0 at TCF Bank Stadium, Taylor had 20 carries for 149 yards and one touchdown.
But last year, when the Gophers shocked the Badgers 37-15 in Madison for one of the biggest victories in program history, Taylor had 120 yards on 19 carries but didn’t score.
The Gophers have always tried to find their own Barry Alvarez, the former Wisconsin football coach who changed the fate of the entire Badgers athletic department when he took over in 1990.
I played a little part in the turnaround because when Alvarez — then the Notre Dame defensive coordinator for Lou Holtz — took the job, I tried to change his mind.
I was very close to Alvarez and, of course, Holtz.
Holtz spent only two seasons with the Gophers (1984-85), and while he couldn’t win a Big Ten title, he did beat the Badgers both seasons.
But in 1990, I was going to have dinner with Holtz and Alvarez in Miami, where the Fighting Irish were facing Colorado in the Orange Bowl.
Holtz said to me, “Come on up to my room, Barry wants to talk to you.”
They told me Alvarez had been offered the head coaching job at Wisconsin.
I said to Barry, “Wisconsin has hired three coaches in four years. If you take that job, you’re crazy.”
I put him on the phone with the Star Tribune sports desk to verify that they’d had seven coaches since 1950.
But fortunately for Wisconsin, Alvarez didn’t listen to me. He turned that program around, winning three Big Ten titles and going to four Rose Bowls — winning in 1993, 1998 and 1999 and losing in 2012. In his head coaching career, Alvarez beat the Gophers 11 out of 16 times.
Alvarez started the Wisconsin winning streak of 14 consecutive victories over the Gophers from 2004-2017 that finally ended last year.