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.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers quarterbacks in 2019
Believe it or not, the start of the Wisconsin Badgers fall camp is right around the corner and we’re hitting the home stretch of our preview season as well.
No position has had more of the spotlight and taken up more of our conversation than what is happening at quarterback. After watching the QB play go from ok to disaster in 2018, it is back to the drawing board in many ways.
With Alex Hornibrook off to Florida State for his final season and the highest rated quarterback recruit in Badgers history on campus, this offseason has been full of intrigue.
But, what will the 2019 season look like for the most critical position on this offense? Let’s take a look at exactly that.
Best Case Scenario
The Badgers find out they hit the jackpot with Graham Mertz and he’s spent the time between spring and fall ball getting up to speed on the offense. Mertz immediately shows this is his job and the coaching staff sees it quickly as well.
Either that or Jack Coan comes in and commands the position and the offense with accuracy and an ability to hit the deep ball. The offense gels around him and heading in to the opener at South Florida, Coan is the man behind center by a wide margin.
Yes, there are two best-case scenarios at play. But, that’s because Wisconsin’s coaching staff would really love for someone to flat-out win the starting job early on in fall camp. Will that happen? That’s the million dollar question and don’t count out Chase Wolf from this competition either. He came on strong as spring went along and his abilities give the Badgers offense some different wrinkles that could be intriguing.
No matter whom wins the battle in fall camp, the best case scenario is that that person wins the battle early, the offense can focus on installing around that quarterback and said quarterback shows why he won the job with quality play during the season.
Worst Case Scenario
If we go in to week three of fall camp and there is no winner to the quarterback job, I’m not so confident in this group. Yes, it’s the job of everyone to compete at a high level, but the coaching staff not being able to separate between the bunch isn’t good news.
My worst-case scenario would be no winner coming out of fall camp, we see quarterbacks splitting time in the fall and this offense stalling out in the pass game once again.
Musical chairs at quarterback never seems to work at Wisconsin and that especially played out last season with Coan clearly thrown to the wolves before he was ready to make a full impact after Hornibrook’s injury.
As long as the Badgers can avoid having to play multiple quarterbacks because none of them have wrestled the position for themselves, UW’s offense should be in a better position in 2019 than it was in 2018.
Most Likely to Happen
As much as the fans want to see Graham Mertz come in and be this game-changing quarterback out of the gate, the most likely scenario is that Mertz gets some game action in the non-conference games and Jack Coan is your regular starter.
I can foresee the scenario playing out much like Coan’s true freshman season. The only difference being that Mertz won’t have to give up his redshirt to play in a single game.
It seems like the most likely to happen scenario is that Coan is your starter for the year with Mertz as the man getting the early season reps behind him and then Chase Wolf being the other option to get reps during conference play.
Let’s not forget that Coan is the only quarterback on this roster that has seen more than a complete mop-up duty. Danny Vanden Boom could be an option too, but it seems like Wolf and Mertz passed him up in the spring competition.
As much as Mertz is the future, coaches are paid to win games now and that likely means playing it safe with Coan.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019
We hope you enjoyed the Independence Day holiday, but it is time to get back to some business and that means continuing our series looking in to every position group for the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers.
Since we went outside the last time around, today we will focus on a position that has long been a strength of the Badgers program — inside linebacker.
What could happen with this group in 2019? Let’s find out.
Best Case Scenario
Yes, the Badgers face life without an All-American and a steady veteran thanks to the graduations of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. But, the good news is that this group was one of the deepest and most productive overall last season.
Veteran Chris Orr will get one starting spot and former 4-star recruit Jack Sanborn will step in to the other starting role. So, the best case scenario for this group is that Orr, who started as a freshman, gets back to that kind of form, and we see quality play from a combination of younger players like Sanborn and freshman Leo Chenal.
No one had a bigger breakout this spring than Chenal did. He came in as an early enrollee, but well under the radar. By the end of spring ball, it looked very much like he won’t be redshirting and will be challenging for a lot of snaps in the fall.
It would be great to see that happen, because Orr has just one year left in the Cardinal and White.
Worst Case Scenario
What would really hurt this group is if Orr or Sanborn were to go down with an injury here. Yes, Chenal looked good in spring ball like I mentioned before and yes Mike Maskalunas has shown flashes of ability, but are they really ready to be thrust in to the majority of snaps at inside linebacker together?
Experience is an issue for this group and I could see an injury exposing that lack of experience in a big way. Even if the Badgers wanted to go with an older player, the only other option would be Seth Currens and he just converted from safety in the spring himself.
Other than that it would be Hunter Johnson or two walk-ons that were here in the spring.
The Badgers only inside linebacker recruit in the 2019 class was Chenal too, so there will be no more help coming in to fall camp.
Most Likely to Happen
The good news is that I don’t see the worst case scenario actually happening, at least not in a major way. Orr’s medical history suggests he could be prone to missing a game or two with a nagging injury, but don’t expect anything crazy to happen.
I also believe we will see the emergence of Sanborn and Chenal as the future of this position for the Badgers. In fact, Sanborn has looked so good in spring and in his limited playing time last season, that I suspect he could be a darkhorse for All-Big Ten honors at season’s end.
Look for this group to be a downhill, hard-hitting and more athletic group than we saw last season and that could make a major difference for those playing behind them.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and his staff have a lot to figure out, but they should feel safe with the talent that is available to them at inside linebacker.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019
This time next month, the pads may be popping and the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers fall practices will be under way. It’s so close we all can almost taste it.
But, as we look forward to the 2019 season we’re going to try something a bit different. Gone are the usual ways of looking position groups and giving you a fall preview that last’s a week.
Well, that’s because this season is vital to the Paul Chryst era. There’s a changing of the guard going on. After a disappointing 2018 season that saw UW drop Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years and not win the Big Ten West, the question is if that’s a sign of decline or a blip on the radar.
In order to best answer that question, we’re actually going to start with a look at what needs to happen, what the Badgers need to avoid and what is really likely at every position.
Up today is a look at the outside linebacker position.
Best Case Scenario:
Last year, the outside linebackers contributed just 8 total sacks to a team total of 19. That’s a lot of contribution to the effort, but the effort was far below expectations set by previous groups. Additionally, the graduation of Andrew Van Ginkel means just 2.5 sacks return from the outside linebacker position in 2019.
Those sacks belong to Zack Baun, who got his feet wet as a starter last season and is looking for big things to happen in 2019. The good news is that Baun was one of Wisconsin’s best run-stoppers on the edge.
Ideally, Baun not only is a leader of this defensive group in 2019, but becomes much more disruptive behind the line of scrimmage too.
Wisconsin has a lot of potential that could start opposite of him. Former Alabama transfer Christian Bell, former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and former inside linebacker Griffin Grady all had their moments of shine in spring ball.
In a best case scenario, the Badgers have more than one of that group step up as contributors to an overall group of outside linebackers that don’t have a lot of in-game experience or depth.
Getting this group to contribute double-digit sacks as a whole would be a great step forward.
Worst Case Scenario:
Noah Burks or Christian Bell don’t live up to their enormous potential. It’s as plain and simple as that.
Wisconsin needs them to become pass-rushing specialists in a big way if this defense is going to be as aggressive as it is designed to be. Often times last season, the inability of the front seven to get pressure really hung an inexperienced secondary out to dry.
If UW experiences more of that, it could really be trouble in 2019. The Badgers need this defense to step up its game, and having both of the expected top contenders in replacing Van Ginkel flame out would be a disaster all the way around.
Most Likely to Happen:
Given all the unknowns surrounding the outside linebacker position, this is a difficult position to predict. However, I will say this — Zack Baun will end up as an All-Big Ten performer.
I believe he just scratched the surface of his potential last year, especially since he was just coming off an awful injury history prior to it. If he stays healthy in 2019, I predict he becomes a surprise player to many outside observers in the Big Ten.
That said, I also believe we will see Christian Bell and Noah Burks become a handful for opposing offensive coordinators to deal with. Both have been patient with the talent that was in front of them, but they are bursting with potential when they have seen the field.
So, to answer the question most want to know…I believe this all signals a position group ready to be a major force once again after that down year in 2018.
Best, Worst case scenarios for Badgers Wide Receivers in 2019
The heat of summer is upon us and the recruiting trail has been even hotter for the Wisconsin Badgers. However, that heat also indicates that the long offseason nightmare is about to be over.
With that in mind, we’re taking a summer-long look at each position group heading in to the 2019 season.
Today, we flip back to the offensive side of the ball and look at a second skill position — wide receiver.
After what was supposed to be a breakout year for the group in 2018, what will this group have in store for 2019? Let’s look at the best and worst case scenarios at play.
Best Case Scenario
If the Badgers want to get going in the pass game, the wide receiver group needs to step up the deep game in a big way. While A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor have proven to be reliable assets, 2018 felt much like they all barely scratched the surface of their potential.
The trio combined for 95 receptions (which was 53 percent of all receptions as a team), 1,212 yards and 11 of 19 touchdown receptions on the year.
For this season, the best case scenario actually involves the quarterback position almost more-so than anything this group can do. The receivers could benefit from a consistently good passer at quarterback and a more open playbook as well.
Whether it is Jack Coan or wonderkid recruit, Graham Mertz, the consistency and trust to open up the playbook needs to be there.
Additionally, an increased role for speedster Aaron Cruickshank would be the best case scenario.
Worst Case Scenario
Danny Davis emerged as the most targeted receiver last season, catching 40 passes to lead all wide receivers on the team. He will enter his junior season with an increase in expectations and no off-field distractions like he had to deal with last season thanks to his stupid decision-making.
That aside, Davis is the most well-rounded receiver in this group and the one that could wind up be the deep threat that has been missing for awhile now. So, any injury to Davis would be bad news.
In fact, any sustained injuries to the likes of Davis, Pryor and Taylor would not be good. UW is very inexperienced behind this trio, and inexperience at QB and WR may not be a fun combination.
Dare I say, it would lead to UW not being back on top of the West division mountain?
Most Likely to Happen
I fully believe that the coaching staff will go in to the season knowing which quarterback they’ll go with and stick with. Confidence is key to helping this wide receiver group and I expect the Badgers offense to be much more balanced in 2019 than it was over the past two seasons.
Look for Davis, Pryor and Taylor to all increase their overall numbers and likely go over the 15 touchdown mark as a group. More importantly, I expect much more play-action and much more from the deep passing game too. That should be music to a talented, but under used group’s ears.
Don’t be surprised to see one of the Badgers wide receivers make a run at All-Big Ten honors as a result of that shift back to balance.
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