A look at the Badgers
It’s been 30 years since Barry Alvarez arrived in Madison and established the template that the Badgers have followed ever since, perhaps never more so than this year: A physical running game powered by a huge offensive line and a brilliant tailback, an aggressive defense that devours hesitant quarterbacks, and a national powerhouse that stumbles along the way, usually to Ohio State.
The 2019 Badgers added a wrinkle by absorbing an unfathomable loss at Illinois, but their motivation Saturday is the same as the Gophers’: Paul Bunyan’s Axe, a division title, the Big Ten title game, perhaps a Rose Bowl.
Jonathan Taylor, whose 5,856 rushing yards are second-most in Big Ten history, draws most of the defensive attention, which has quietly enabled QB Jack Coan to complete 72.7% of his passes. So it’s no surprise they lead the nation in time of possession, averaging 36:39 per game, a habit that could come in handy in bad weather. Taylor and Coan, however, have been fumble-prone; the Badgers have lost 10 fumbles in eight conference games and are minus-1 in turnover differential.
The defense posted shutouts in all three nonconference blowouts but has been more ordinary in conference games, allowing 19.8 points per outing. K Collin Larsh is only 10-for-15 on field goals, but kickoff specialist Zach Hintze booted a 62-yard field goal at the end of the first half last week, tying the Gophers’ Chip Lohmiller in 1986 for second-longest kick in Big Ten history, behind Morten Anderson’s 63-yarder for Michigan State in 1981.
Who to watch: Wisconsin middle linebacker Chris Orr
The Badgers don’t hesitate to unleash the senior pass-rusher on opposing quarterbacks, and Orr has a knack for threading his way through chaos at the line of scrimmage to breach the pocket. The result: 11 sacks for the season, second in the Big Ten and the most by a Badgers player since T.J. Watt. Along with fellow senior LB Zack Baun, who has 9½ sacks of his own, Orr has helped Wisconsin more than double its sack production from last year. That pressure is also part of the reason opponents have competed just 49.2% of their passes, a mark bettered only by Clemson (47.1). The brother of former Baltimore Ravens player Zach Orr, the Wisconsin linebacker is also a senior captain, a role he takes seriously. “I feel like I’m pretty much a natural leader,” the outgoing Orr told reporters before the season. “I’m eager to have guys look to me when things may not be going well or whenever they need some energy.”
From the coach: Paul Chryst
Losing Paul Bunyan’s Axe last November after 14 consecutive rivalry victories will provide ample motivation for the Badgers, the former Wisconsin quarterback and fifth-year head coach said, but he doesn’t want his players to be too amped up by what’s at stake. None of that matters once the game kicks off, he emphasized this week. “The Axe is symbolic, right? It’s awesome to be part of a rivalry such as this,” Chryst said. “Our guys know the history of the rivalry, they understand what’s in it for this year. … But the important thing for players to understand is, it’s about playing. Not what you’re playing for — it’s about playing the game.”