Rivalries and trophy games are what really separate the Big Ten from other conferences. Sure, other leagues have them, but few have had them for as long as the Big Ten has. These games mean something to the players, alumni and current fans.
At least they are supposed to.
As the Badgers gear up for the longest-played continuous series in FBS football this weekend, we are daring to ask the question of whether or not you can call the Gophers a real rival anymore.
It’s a question that is quickly answered by current players and those who have had a generation of hatred engrained in to them.
Beau and Luke Benzschawel are amongst a group of second-generation and Badgers and despite a rather large winning streak and a lack of upper-echelon play from the rivals to the East of Dakota, there is plenty of pride and meaning in this game still.
The elder Benzschawel brother relayed just how much his father emphasized the game and the hatred for the Gophers to his sons early and often.
“He told me how he has hated the Gophers forever — nothing more than that,” said Benzschawel to Varsity Magazine. “It may have been ingrained in me, too.”
That’s well and good for a generation that wasn’t used to winning games, period. But, with all that has gone on in this series and where these two teams stand today, does this game still have the luster and hatred to it?
13 years of owning Paul Bunyan’s axe certainly begs that question. Right now there are two, almost three full classes of Badgers who have known nothing but winning in this series. That makes it not exactly an easy game to get up for, even if Paul Bunyan’s Axe is the coolest trophy game in the history of trophy games.
Let’s also consider that 20 of the last 22 games have been won by Wisconsin and you see a much longer period of domination in this series.
Then there is the fact that the Badgers would own the advantage in the all-time series after a nearly multi-lifetime of not owning said series advantage with a win on Saturday.
It’s easy to see why this game has lost some luster for the fans. After all, knowing you are going to win every single year gets boring.
It doesn’t help that the two teams aren’t even playing on the same level. Minnesota hasn’t won a conference title since the great year that was 1967, while the Badgers are playing for the fifth time in seven Big Ten championship games and have won three B1G titles since 2010 as well.
Rivalries have to come from competitive play and meaningful games. That hasn’t happened in over a decade at the very least between these two teams. The average margin of victory in the 13 games played in the current Badgers win streak is a hefty 13.4 points per game. Just three of the 13 games have been decided by fewer than a touchdown as well.
But, it isn’t just about the fans or the stats. Rivalries also have to have meaning for the players on the field today too. That is where you realize that this game isn’t going to lose its luster in the locker rooms of either side. Sharing a border means sharing players, getting in to intense recruiting battles and plenty of personal motivation for this game.
Benzschawel went on to tell us all you need to know about just how important this game is no matter what is on the line — and there is certainly plenty on the line for both of these teams on Saturday.
“It has gone our way for the past couple of years,” suggested Benzschawel, understating the Badgers domination to Varsity Magazine.
“But we know that they’re going to give us their best shot. And it’s a real big pride thing for us keeping the Axe. We don’t want to be the ones that give it up.
“They’re playing for a lot; they’re playing for bowl eligibility. And we’re playing for an undefeated season. There’s a lot at stake for both of us.
“Whoever comes out with the most intensity and the best game plan is going to win.”
This game has plenty of meaning on Saturday, with the Badgers looking for an undefeated regular season and Minnesota looking for bowl eligibility. But, that meaning and the generational hatred passed down don’t make this the biggest rivalry on the Badgers schedule anymore.
When I spoke to Badgers players during Media Day, there were two other teams that came to their mind first when thinking of their most difficult game. Those teams were Iowa and Northwestern.
Rightfully so, because winning them likely means you’re on the path to a division title regardless of what is happening around you. Can you say the same thing of the meaning of winning this game? It’s happened once, but that game was a no-doubter for the Badgers and Minnesota hasn’t sniffed a conference division crown since.
Rivalries are built on tradition, location, generational hatred and sometimes mutual respect (just don’t ask me to buy a Gophers fan a beer). They are also built on being competitive against each other.
While the hatred on the field might still be there, there’s the other aspect of a rivalry to consider — the fans. Simply put, there isn’t the same feeling around Camp Randall for this game as there is for a visit by Iowa or Nebraska or Northwestern. The want to win those games by fans is far greater than this one.
Perhaps its a byproduct of winning so much in this series and perhaps it’s because the Gophers have had crap teams for so long too. But, isn’t that part of the point of a rivalry? It needs to actually be competitive to matter.
Take a rivalry like Iowa-Iowa State. It used to not be a thing…then Iowa State started winning and now it is one of the most bitter non-conference rivalries in FBS football.
Until the Gophers show they are competing for division titles, 10-win seasons and, gasp – conference championships – this game continues to take on less and less meaning for the fans in this era of college football.
But, all you need to know about the Badgers focus can be summed up in a story told by Andy Baggot on the Badgers website this week:
When Chryst is done speaking, he typically identifies a player to move to the middle of the massive huddle, raise an arm and, on the count of three, belt out a rallying cry.
Usually it’s a resounding, heavy on the baritone “U-Dub.”
But this time Chryst didn’t call anyone up. Everyone in the room just came together and, on the count of three, knew what to say. “Axe Week.”
There certainly isn’t any loss for the significance of the this game on this generation of Badgers players. Perhaps its pride in a series-best winning streak. Perhaps it is Chryst having played at Wisconsin and understanding what its like to be on the losing side of this series. Or perhaps its the friends who have turned in to rivals or the chance at a perfect regular season being on the line?
Whatever it is, there will be no lack of motivation or focus on the game at hand for the Badgers in this one.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the hatred and luster has worn off for the fans to a large degree. I remember this week being all geeked up as a kid. Today? I’m likely not getting geeked up until Saturday morning at best, because beating the Gophers is just what the Badgers do as of late.
Put it another way — when is the last time you said to your buddy “Hey, remember that game against the Gophers?” Chances are you’re talking about a game played over a decade ago at best.
Will the game ever return to prominence? Never say never, but there’s a long row ahead (see what I did there) and it is on P.J. Fleck and the Gophers to finally step their game up.
If they do, that’s just good news for the Big Ten and the West divisions overall strength. But, until then it is hard to see this game as anything but fading in to the background…just like the Little Brown Jug has…for the fans at least.
Winning matters a whole lot for both teams on Saturday, so perhaps that’s the spark that will re-ignite a dying rivalry for the fans as much as the flame of rivalry hatred burns inside for the players and coaches.
Badgers fall victim to the trap, lose to Illinois
This is why they don’t play the games on paper. On paper, the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers should have been able to make quick work of a struggling Illinois Fighting Illini team.
Instead, it was a slog for the Badgers offense and Illinois took advantage of three turnovers for 17 points en route to a shocking 24-23 victory.
With the Badgers driving to potentially salt away a hard-fought victory, Jack Coan threw just his second interception of the season and Illinois drove the ball deep in to Wisconsin territory and kicked a game-winning 39-yard field goal as time expired.
Wisconsin’s usually rugged run game was off, and the stingy run defense was far from that. Yes, Jonathan Taylor went over the 5,000-yard mark for his career on the first carry of the game, but he would put up just 132 yards on 28 carries on the day and UW’s defense allowed a season-worst 141 yards on the ground to Illinois.
Prior to this game, Wisconsin’s worst performance on offense was 97 yards against Northwestern.
Taylor’s struggles included a brutal turnover, as he gained a first down at the Illinois 17-yard line but coughed up the football trying to fight for extra yardage a third time on the play.
Illinois drove the ball down for a touchdown in just 1:19 of game time and what could’ve been a three-score game turned in to a 23-21 lead with 5:53 to play.
Wisconsin drove the ball past midfield on the next possession appearing poised to put the game out of Illinois reach again, but stumbled near midfield.
On a 2nd and 11, Coan attempted to drop a pass to Jake Ferguson in between the zone. However, Tony Adams had backed off the underneath and picked off the pass at the Illinois 47-yard line.
From there, Illinois ripped off big run after big run to get themselves in to field goal range and the rest was history.
Ironically, it was Coan who powered the Badgers offense for most of the day, throwing for 263 yards on 24 of 32 passing.
Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown combined for 153 yards on the day for the Illini on 28 carries, and came up huge when they needed it as the game went on.
Illinois outplayed the Badgers up front on both sides of the ball and deserved this win.
This was easily the most shocking loss in the Paul Chryst era and a date with Ohio State looms large if Wisconsin wants to continue to hope to make it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.
A loss next week and all control of their own destiny goes out the window.
Badgers mid-season report card: Defense
As Saturday’s game against Illinois inches closer to kick, it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that we are at the halfway point of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers season.
UW is 6-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country in both polls (if you want to care about those things). So, how did Wisconsin get here and who has been vital to all of that success so far?
Well, we’re taking a look back at the first half of the season for you. Earlier this week we took a look at our grades for the Badgers offense. Today, we take a look at the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive Line: A+
One of the biggest question marks coming in to the 2019 season was the UW defensive line. With no Olive Sagapolu and two starting defensive ends coming off of major injuries, how would this group look in 2019? Well, the answer is pretty damn good.
Bryson Williams, the starting nose guard, went down with a bad injury early in the season and in stepped true freshman Keannu Benton, who ripped off back-to-back performances that were rated No. 1 on the team by Pro Football Focus.
Isaiahh Loudermilk had a small injury early on and has been very good since his return, while Garrett Rand is doing work on the other side. Perhaps the biggest story is that this group has been disruptive in a major way.
We’ve had Matt Henningsen score a touchdown not once, but twice and the defensive linemen have racked up 3.0 sacks to date. Not too bad for a group of unproven, but talented players.
Another big question mark coming in to the year was if the Badgers could get enough pressure from its linebacker group to make a difference in 2019. Last season was a dramatic drop off in sacks and tackles from loss as a team, but there has been no such issue in 2019. j
Zack Baun has been one of the best players in the country through the halfway point of the season. He’s put up 26 tackles, has one pick-six, 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks (tied for 8th nationally) through the first six games of the season.
It’s earned him Pro Football Focus mid-season first-team All-American honors. Considering he didn’t produce at nearly this level last season, it’s been a huge start for the senior.
On the opposite side of him, we’ve seen the combination of Izayah Green-May (missed time with a broken thumb) and Noah Burks become dangerous players in their own right. As a team, Wisconsin has put up 23 sacks through six games, which is more than they had in all of 2018 (19.0).
Jack Sanborn has been great and the pairing of him with Chris Orr has unleashed one of the most athletic and dangerous combinations of inside linebackers the Badgers have had since switching to the 3-4 defense when Gary Andersen arrived.
You could not draw up a more productive start to a season from a linebacker group if you tried.
If you just go by the stats, it is hard to argue that Wisconsin isn’t playing some of its best ball against the pass that we’ve ever seen. I mean, they have allowed a Big Ten low three passing touchdowns and the team has eight overall interceptions, with two going for a defensive touchdown.
But, some of the stats can be misleading, especially those eight interceptions. The good news for the secondary is that five of the eight interceptions are attributed to the defensive backs, with starting safety Eric Burrell picking off a pair of passes.
It isn’t just the starting group that has held up well either. Wisconsin has had a next man up mentality and it has worked well. Colin Wilder and John Torchio stepped up when both Burell and fellow safety Reggie Pearson got tossed for hits to the head against Michigan.
Deron Harrell is credited with four pass breakups and Wilder with five to lead the secondary group in that category.
Overall, it’s hard to pick apart this group, but if there’s one area to watch it is their inconsistency in intermediate and deep balls. Luckily, most offenses don’t have enough time to set up a deep passing game so it hasn’t been much of a worry at all.
Let’s just go over these stats given up by the Badgers defense once again:
4.8 points per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
44.6 rushing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
129.0 passing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
173.7 total yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
In fact, Wisconsin’s 173.7 total yards per game given up is 60.3 yards per game better than the next best team — Ohio State — has given up this year.
Given all of that information, how could it not be an A+ so far this season? After all, Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team since the 1962 Minnesota Gophers team to pitch four shutouts in the first six games of a season.
Badgers mid-season report card: Offense
Believe it or not, but we have already reached the middle of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers football season. I know, it doesn’t seem possible because there seems to be so much football ahead.
You would be right, what with Ohio State, Iowa and Minnesota still looming large on the schedule and all.
But, as we want to look forward, we need to know the foundation that future has been built on. How have the Badgers faired so far in 2019? Let’s take a look position by position.
Offensive Line: A –
All seems to be rosy for the Badgers offensive line. They’ve given up a Big Ten-low of eight sacks and are the No. 2 rushing attack in the league, trailing only Ohio State. While you could say the Buckeyes have yet to face a real defense, they still are consistently putting up better numbers than Wisconsin has.
We’ll see if that holds up, but on the whole it is hard to argue that this group hasn’t been very good. They’ve dealt with a few injuries and haven’t really missed a beat for the most part.
If there’s one area that has put them from an A to an A- in my book, it is their performance in the run game against Northwestern and Michigan State at home. In both cases, Jonathan Taylor really struggled to get going and the offensive line found themselves back on their heels quite a bit. Thus, Taylor’s struggles.
Yes, both Northwestern and MSU are very good defensive fronts, but if you want to earn the top grades, you have to win more than they did up front against those two defensive lines. That’s especially worrisome when you see the defensive fronts that both Ohio State and Iowa can put out there.
This unit is very athletic and certainly can do some special things. But, it needs to be more consistent against high level defenses if the Badgers want to prove they belong in the College Football Playoff conversation. Not having a single member of this group on the Pro Football Focus mid-season All-American list tells me this group hasn’t been as good as potentially then can be by the end of the year.
Running Backs: B
Yes, Jonathan Taylor is a Pro Football Focus and everywhere else mid-season All-American and yes, he’s en route to break all sorts of historical marks, but there’s more to this group than Taylor and for that reason we have to give this group an overall grade of B.
In fact, if you were to take Taylor away from this position group, you would be far lower on the grade. Redshirt freshman Nakia Watson has picked up 53 carries for just 238 yards and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. While that average isn’t bad, Watson hasn’t shown any flashes of being the next big star running back at Wisconsin with ample opportunities to do so.
Bradrick Shaw and Garrett Groshek haven’t been big factors in the Badgers run game either and Julius Davis appears headed for a complete redshirt. What happens if Taylor goes down? There hasn’t been anyone producing at a high enough level to give us confidence that it’ll just be “next man up” as we’ve seen year over year over year at UW since 1990.
John Chenal and Mason Stokke (pre-injury) have been very good fullbacks in the traditional Wisconsin mold, but they could be a bit better at their blocking technique and that will come with time on the field as both are younger options at fullback.
Overall, this group is doing well, I just downgrade for a lack of a second dynamic option at running back so far this year.
Tight Ends: B+
Much was expected out of junior tight end Jake Ferguson, so much so that many believed he would showcase himself and leave for the NFL after this season. After six games, I’m not so sure that is going to happen.
Yes, Ferguson is second on the team with 15 receptions, but he’s averaging 11 yards a catch and has just one touchdown to his name. Those numbers pace far behind last season.
There just seems to be something missing from the explosive player we saw in 2018, who caught 36 passes for over 450 yards and had four touchdowns to his name.
On the bright side, Ferguson has become a more reliable blocker and that could be the thing that gets him to the NFL a year early. We’ll see what happens the second half of the season though.
As for the rest of the group, it’s been hard to grade because injuries have piled up and not a single other tight end as caught a pass for the Badgers so far this season. So, when I look at Ferguson’s play, it’s hard to not give him a solid grade, but room for improvement and impact in the second half.
Wide Receivers: B-
There is no doubt that getting Quintez Cephus back in a Badgers uniform has been huge. But, with that said, this group has not produced the big plays we’d hope to see after a few years of experience for names like Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor.
Cephus is the only receiver with a touchdown to his name, albeit there have only been eight passing touchdowns on the season. However, the leading TD man is running back Jonathan Taylor, who has four already this year.
Pryor came up big against Michigan State and overall this group has produced well when given the opportunity. But, the inability to get separation and thus stretch the defense holds them back.
Maybe the coaching staff is also holding back what we see from this group, as by-in-large, UW hasn’t had to open up the full offense to win a game this season.
Quarterback: A –
Alright, it’s time for Badgers nation to eat some crow here. Everyone thought that Coan was the second-coming of Alex Hornibrook after his first efforts last season. But, through the first six games, Coan has been anything but the second-coming of Hornibrook. In fact, you could say he’s been the anti-Hornibrook.
He’s been clutch, he’s making the smart decisions and he’s keeping drives alive. Doing that at Wisconsin, with the best running back in college football, is exactly what is needed.
Coan is completing a ridiculous 76.3 percent of his passes, which leads the league and is second nationally only to Joe Burrow at LSU. Now, he has only thrown for 1,119 yards (8th in the B1G) and you could say that isn’t great, but consider how he’s become a complementary piece to the run game and you can see why his efficiency and clutch play matters more.
Additionally, his eight touchdowns to just one interception ratio is phenomenal. Ohio State’s Justin Fields is the only other starter in the Big Ten that has thrown just one pick through the halfway point of the season.
I wanted to give a higher grade, but Coan has struggled to hit the deep ball at times and seems most comfortable hitting the seven to 15-yard passes. That’s fine, but having someone to really stretch a defense out of eight-man boxes would be nice.
Maybe I’m nitpicking, but Coan has established himself as the rightful starter and put to bed most of the critics by becoming the go-to force in the win over Michigan State after a shaky couple of weeks against Michigan and Northwestern.
Having three multiple-touchdown games given what Jonathan Taylor is doing on the ground is impressive through six games.
Defense leads Badgers to win over Northwestern
It sure wasn’t pretty, but the Wisconsin Badgers took down reigning West division champions, the Northwestern Wildcats just the same.
UW’s defense came up big in the 24-15 victory. What happened, which players were the highlights and what needs to be worked on as the 4-0 Badgers go out of conference next week?
Our publisher, Andrew Coppens, comes to you with his full recap of UW’s win.
Don’t forget to subscribe, hit that notifications bell and you’ll never miss a single video the rest of the year!
Badgers football2 months ago
Cephus looking to get back to school, but will he get back in to UW?
Badgers football3 months ago
Badgers add 3-star CB to 2020 class
Badgers football2 months ago
Joe Thomas makes CBS Sports All-time All-American list
Badgers football2 months ago
Badgers Opposition Research: Kent State preseason edition