One of college football’s oldest rivalries reaches a new pinnacle Saturday, as No. 22 Minnesota takes on No. 14 Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium to decide the Big Ten West title.
Whoever wins will play East Division champ Ohio State Dec. 6 in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship. With such high stakes on the line, the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe finally has some renewed significance for a rivalry that has been one-sided for the past decade.
Though they own a 59-56-8 edge in the series, the Golden Gophers (5-2 Big Ten, 8-3 overall) haven’t beaten the Badgers (6-1, 9-2) since 2003. In the 10 games since then, Wisconsin has won each contest by an average of 16 points.
This will be just the third Axe game since 1963 in which both teams are ranked in the AP poll. The last such matchup came in 2005 and was full of late-game drama, as the Badgers blocked a punt with under a minute to go and recovered it in the end zone for the winning score.
Though such a wild finish probably won’t happen and despite Wisconsin dominating the recent matchups, expect this game to be tightly contested. The Gophers share plenty of similarities with the Badgers—run-heavy offense backed by a strong defense.
Running back David Cobb leads Minnesota’s offensive attack. One of the most underrated players in the Big Ten, Cobb averages 130 rushing yards per game, a figure that ranks ninth in the nation.
He’s the focal point of the Gophers’ run-dominant offense. If you thought the Badgers rarely throw the ball, Minnesota actually passes even less frequently than Wisconsin. Among Power Five schools, the Gophers average the second-fewest pass attempts per game, ahead of only Georgia Tech.
However, Cobb is questionable for Saturday's game with a hamstring injury. If he can't go, Minnesota will have to employ a three-headed attack of Berkley Edwards, Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner is essentially Tanner McEvoy 2.0. He’s a mediocre passer—51.1 percent completion rate, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions—but a pretty good runner with eight rushing touchdowns on the season.
Leidner has one superb receiving target in tight end Maxx Williams. A redshirt sophomore, Williams was just named as one of three finalists for the John Mackey Award, given annually to the nation’s best tight end. He’s caught 28 passes for 418 yards and seven touchdowns, and is capable of making plays like this.
On the other side of the ball, though the Gophers don’t quite have as prolific numbers as the Badgers’ elite defense, they still rank in the Top 40 in three of the four major categories.
Though the numbers say Minnesota ranks a mediocre 53rd in rushing defense, those numbers are skewed after being gashed by Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett two weeks ago for 189 rushing yards. The Gophers shut down talented Big Ten runners like Iowa’s Mark Weisman and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, allowing just 119 combined yards on 34 carries to those two players.
Minnesota’s comeback win last weekend against Nebraska was the culmination of a strong three-game stretch that helped the Gophers overcome a midseason malaise. They lost a head-scratcher against Illinois Oct. 25 after nearly losing to Purdue the week before that.
But then the Gophers annihilated Iowa, put together a solid comeback effort two weeks ago against Ohio State before coming up short, and then recovered from a 14-point halftime deficit in Lincoln to knock off the Huskers.
Despite trailing by double digits in the second half last week, Minnesota stuck to its gameplan and continued to run the football. The Gophers kept the ball on the ground on 24 of their 31 second-half plays.
In the all-time series, Minnesota and Wisconsin haven’t had this much to play for since the 1962 matchup when the No. 3 Badgers defeated the No. 5 Gophers to win the Big Ten and go to the Rose Bowl.
While a de facto conference title game between these two teams won’t happen again with the way the divisions are structured, a divisional championship matchup is the next best thing.