The Gophers enter their border battle against the Badgers as two-touchdown underdogs. An upset would allow the Gophers to finish in a first-place tie in the Big Ten West, but they’ve already been eliminated from the conference title game by tiebreakers.

The Gophers haven’t celebrated with Paul Bunyan’s Axe since 2003, a string of 12 consecutive losses to their rival. The Badgers still have a shot at the College Football Playoff, and they own one of the five best defenses nationally.

In other words, the Gophers really have nothing to lose, except a 13th consecutive meeting.

They should act accordingly, particularly on offense. This is not the time to play conservatively.

Gophers offensive coordinator Jay Johnson should hold up his playbook, give it a good shake and see what falls out.

As the kids say, Johnson needs to get weird.

The Badgers defense is too suffocating to play it safe and conventional. They rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and third-down defense.

They held Michigan to 14 points — about 28 points below the Wolverines season average.

Ohio State scored 23 points against them in regulation before winning 30-23 in overtime. The Buckeyes average about 44 points per game.

The Badgers have held four Big Ten opponents to single digits and allow only 13.4 points per game, fifth lowest nationally.

This situation calls for creativity and willingness to try things that otherwise might be kept tucked away in the playbook. A run-run-pass approach probably won’t accomplish much.

The Gophers realistically can’t reinvent their identity in one week. I’m not suggesting they draw plays in their palm like at a backyard Thanksgiving football game.

But if Johnson has any special plays or formations he hasn’t shown yet, this would be an appropriate time to unveil them.

“With as successful as they’ve been on defense, we’ve got to do some things to make big plays happen,” Johnson said. “So if that’s throwing caution to the wind, I don’t know, but we’ve got to try to put our guys in that position and get some big chunks when we can.”

A few years ago, then-offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover seemed to catch Nebraska by surprise and slow to react to jet sweeps in a creative game plan heavy on misdirection plays.

“Every week, you’re going to have those different wrinkles in,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “It’s just whether or not they get called. But at the end of the day, we do what we do.”

But can they do what they do against this Badgers defense? Nobody else really has been successful, so the Gophers can’t afford to be stubborn or inflexible.

The Gophers are built to run the ball. And they do it quite well with tag-team partners, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.

If they can successfully run the ball on the Badgers, stick with it. But they need an alternative plan, too, because the Badgers are fifth nationally in rushing defense.

That’s why a few new wrinkles or trick plays might pay dividends. Sometimes a matchup screams for coaching gambles, something that might be referred to as a “Why not?” approach, or perhaps more colorful language.

Here’s an example: In 2010, the Vikings played the Philadelphia Eagles on the road near the end of a miserable season. The Eagles were ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total offense, No. 2 in scoring and No. 1 in explosive plays.

Vikings defensive coordinator Fred Pagac designed a radical game plan that utilized cornerback Antoine Winfield in a unique role. Winfield blitzed 16 times from his slot nickel position. Winfield kept quarterback Michael Vick under duress all game in an upset.

In some cases, taking risks is smart strategy.

Might the Gophers showcase a few new wrinkles against a Badgers defense that smothers opponents? Nobody tipped their hand, of course, but Leidner acknowledged they have plays they haven’t showcased this season.

“Yeah, no doubt,” he said.

No sense in saving them.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com