While the agony of defeat may be a harsh pill to swallow, the Wisconsin football team (3-2 Big Ten, 7-2 overall) showcased its resiliency with a convincing 62-17 victory over Purdue, avenging two consecutive losses on the road. Wisconsin’s exceptional running attack was in full force as junior running back Montee Ball rushed for a career-high 223 yards and tied Brian Calhoun’s school record of 24 touchdowns in a season.
“He always wants it in his hands, and that’s a great thing to have in terms of a running back that can make big plays when things aren’t necessarily always there,” senior quarterback Russell Wilson said. “He does a great job of pushing himself every day and getting better.”
Ball is poised to have another solid campaign as the Badgers travel to Minnesota to battle a Gopher team (1-4, 2-7) that has struggled mightily against the run. In fact, the Gophers surrender an average of 191.1 yards per game, tied for 92nd in the country and 11th in the Big Ten conference. Also, history appears to favor the Badgers, as a Wisconsin running back has run for at least 100 yards in 10 of the last 11 games against Minnesota.
More importantly, Ball will have an opportunity not only to surpass Calhoun’s record, but to tie or even break the Big Ten record for touchdowns in a season at 26. Only three other backs have reached that mark in the history of the conference: Pete Johnson in 1975 for Ohio State, Anthony Thompson in 1988 for Indiana and Ki-Jana Carter in 1994 for Penn State.
“What Montee has done is in his own hands, we just can give him the support, the program and the developmental phase, but Montee, the way he is wired, has just been special,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. “I just think Montee is so far advanced beyond Brian [Calhoun], but also other running backs that I’ve been around.”
Wisconsin will need Ball and the running game this weekend because the team is determined to retain control of the coveted Paul Bunyan’s Axe in the Border Battle against rival Minnesota. If the Badgers win, they will have had the axe for eight consecutive seasons. Wisconsin versus Minnesota is the longest tenured rivalry in college football. This will be the 121st meeting between the teams in a series that dates back to 1890.
In order to motivate his team for this game, Bielema has used some interesting tactics in the past.
“I remember my second or third year, I had a couple of our strength coaches dress up in Gophers uniforms, and at the end of a Thursday practice, they ran on the field, grabbed the axe and ran out, and everybody was looking around like what the hell just happened,” Bielema said. “They had never seen the trophy lost, and I wanted them to feel what that was going to be like.”
Despite a 2-7 overall record, Minnesota has played well in the previous two weeks, knocking off Iowa 22-21 and nearly defeating Michigan State, falling 31-24. The success has come in large part due to the strong play of junior quarterback MarQueis Gray, who threw for 295 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions in the MSU loss.
“They list him at 240, but he looks bigger than that,” Bielema said. “[Da’Jon] McKnight and him have a really special relationship, especially getting into the end zone, and to me, they are just settling in to what the coaches are telling them.”
The recent success has not gone unnoticed, and Wilson did not hesitate to give credit to the Gophers.
“We are playing a great team in Minnesota who has been playing great in the last couple games, so we have to be prepared for that,” Wilson said.
Yet, even with its strong performances, Wisconsin has been revitalized after returning to its winning ways, and the tradition and importance of the rivalry has added more emotional fuel for players. Wisconsin knows it will have to fight for the Leaders Division crown, and that’s what the Badgers are truly aiming for.
“It means a lot in terms of the pride and tradition here at UW, but it’s just another game on our plate to get prepared for and in our minds; we have to win,” Wilson said. “Every week for us is a championship game, and this is a game we have to win out.”