Tracy Claeys had a car salesman he liked in Hudson, Wis. Then the Gophers suffered another in a long string of losses to Wisconsin.

“I made sure I avoided him because he wanted to rouse a little bit,” the Gophers coach said Sunday. “From your own car dealer, know what I’m saying? That tells you how important things are.”

Claeys said the dealership’s employees are “great people,” and he enjoyed the give and take for a while. But the Badgers have 12 consecutive victories against the Gophers, who haven’t won Paul Bunyan’s Axe since 2003.

“It’s hard to bite back when you haven’t had it for a while,” Claeys said. “We need to do everything we can to get that changed.”

So Saturday night, after Minnesota’s 29-12 win over Northwestern, Claeys called around to other coaches for insight into this year’s Wisconsin team.

Under second-year coach Paul Chryst, the No. 5 Badgers have survived a brutal schedule, going 9-2, with their only losses coming to No. 3 Michigan (seven points) and No. 2 Ohio State (in overtime).

Wisconsin can clinch the Big Ten West with a win over Minnesota, or with a Nebraska loss to Iowa. Even if Nebraska loses Friday, Saturday’s Gophers game will have national significance, with the Badgers on the College Football Playoff bubble.

“The most common thing [coaches say about the Badgers] is they’re playing awfully well on defense, and they just don’t beat themselves on offense,” Claeys said. “Paul and their offensive staff have done a nice job of playing two quarterbacks and not turning the ball over. They know what they want to do, and they’re patient.”

Wisconsin ranks fifth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 13.4 points per game. They’ve used both redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook and senior Bart Houston at quarterback, and with a healthy Corey Clement leading the way, they have the Big Ten’s third-ranked rushing offense (200.7 yards per game).

“Another guy told me they can eat up the clock in a hurry on you,” Claeys said. “You think you’re within seven or 14 points, and all of a sudden you look up at the scoreboard, and there ain’t much time left.”

The Gophers know that smothering feeling against the Badgers all too well. Minnesota liked its chances to win the Axe last November, with Clement out and injuries forcing the Badgers to use four redshirt freshmen on the offensive line.

But the Gophers were missing both starting defensive tackles (Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe) and key reserve Robert Ndondo-Lay. The Badgers did what they seemingly always do, rushing for 257 yards in that 31-21 victory.

Now, the Gophers are thriving along a healthy defensive line, especially Richardson, who leads the team with seven sacks.

“I feel a lot better up front, there’s no question,” Claeys said. “It’ll be two of the better defenses and two of the better running offenses in the conference going against each other.

“It’ll be, who can make a few plays? Rashad [Still] made a big play for us [with his 62-yard reception against Northwestern]. We have to have a few big plays, and we’re going to have to run the football a little bit.”

Rodney Smith was the Gophers’ leading rusher for five consecutive games before Northwestern held him to 32 yards on 16 carries and two receptions for 6 yards. But just when Minnesota needed it, Shannon Brooks re-emerged, racking up 106 all-purpose yards (73 rushing, 33 receiving).

“Shannon has been a little bit banged up, and [Saturday] was the first day we felt like he was getting back to full speed,” Claeys said.

The Gophers have outplayed the Badgers for stretches over the years. To reclaim the Axe, Claeys has long said Minnesota needs to do that for four full quarters.

“We have to have a good week’s practice because they’ll be ready to go,” he said. “They’ve got a chance to go to Indianapolis [for the Big Ten title game]. I’m sure Paul will have them ready, but our kids have answered the bell and competed every week. We’ll be ready to go, and hopefully it’s a hell of a game.”

It sounds like a certain car salesman’s commission is riding on it.

 

Joe Christensen covers college football for the Star Tribune. E-mail: jchristensen@startribune.com