After months of anticipation, a long summer of training, and 13 weeks of the season, that’s all that remains in deciding the winner of the 2019 Big Ten West: one game. It just so happens to feature college football’s oldest rivalry, No. 12 Wisconsin (6-2 Big Ten, 9-2 overall) and No. 8 Minnesota (7-1 Big Ten, 10-1 overall) in the 129th battle for Paul Bunyon’s Axe.
“We wouldn’t want this any other way,” said Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor last Saturday. “Big Ten West on the line, rivalry game, The Axe. You come to Wisconsin for these moments. I’m sure we’ll have a great week of preparation in order to bring our A game.”
For the Badgers, the odds of even having a chance to play for the division Saturday at Minnesota looked dire following the team’s upset loss at Illinois early in the year. Yet Wisconsin, which needed to win each of its final four games of the season to head to Indianapolis next Saturday, has put itself back on track with commanding wins against No. 17 Iowa, Nebraska, and Purdue.
“We [put] ourselves in a position where our backs were against the wall and we had to win,” said Senior linebacker Zack Baun. “Playing good November football is what we wanted to do...we wanted to win all four and we’re three-fourths of the way there.”
All that stands in their path is a Minnesota team that has exceeded all expectations in 2019. Despite three underwhelming non-conference performances, the Golden Gophers have dominated Big Ten opponents, compiling a 7-1 record in conference with a dominant plus-151 point differential across the eight games. Minnesota’s lone loss in Week 12 at Iowa, a 23-19 affair in which Minnesota failed to capitalize on many second-half chances, put Wisconsin back in control of its conference destiny.
“They’ve come ready and have performed very well against the teams we’ve seen,” Wisconsin center Tyler Biadasz said of the Minnesota defense. “We have to attack them. I don’t think they’ve been tested like we can test them. We’ll be ready for them.”
Many scouts see Biadasz, an NFL Draft-eligible junior, as the best center in the country, and he’s played like it the last few weeks. Since the Wisconsin offensive line’s dismal performance against No. 1 Ohio State in October, the run game has been virtually unstoppable. The person receiving all the statistical credit for the offensive line’s work, Jonathan Taylor, has put together performances of 250, 204, and 222 rushing yards with three touchdowns over the past three weeks.
Playing in what was likely his final game at Camp Randall last Saturday, Taylor was honored on the final drive with a standing ovation from the home crowd following a curtain call by head coach Paul Chryst. Among a long list of standout ball carriers at Wisconsin, Taylor was arguably the best of them all.
“It was definitely an honor,” Biadasz said of playing in front of Taylor. “You can’t say enough about him as a player and a person. He has made so much history here. It was kind of emotional because of everything we’ve gone through.”
Yet it wasn’t just Taylor carrying the ball last Saturday for the Badgers; the team broke out the wildcat formation five times, converting four first downs and two touchdowns. Backup running back Garrett Groshek and the Badger’s secret offensive weapon Aron Cruickshank each took direct snaps from Biadasz to the endzone for scores, doing their part in Wisconsin’s eight scoring drives. Wisconsin didn’t punt a single time all afternoon, crossing into Purdue territory on each of their 12 drives.
“Everybody had a chance and opportunity to touch the ball and do what they can do,” Cruickshank said of Wisconsin’s diverse offensive gameplan last weekend. “Finally I got to go on the field...and show what I can do...it’s important to show that I’m more than just a jet runner.”
When asked if we should expect to see that offensive creativity continue into Wisconsin’s crucial battle against Minnesota Saturday, coaches and players declined to tip their hand. Yet the success of the jet sweeps and wildcat plays should make them appealing against a Golden Gopher defense that has held strong against the run this year.
“It gives you one more gap to have to defend,” Chryst said of the challenges of defending the wildcat package. “If you start cheating a little bit, we’ve got a chance for some [conversions]...it was helpful.”
Although Wisconsin’s offensive gameplan usually downplays the importance of the quarterback position, junior Jack Coan has done everything asked of him through 11 games this season. The passing game has remained mostly short and conventional, and Coan has limited his turnovers (15/4 TD/INT ratio this year), and has developed a great deep threat with wide receiver Quintez Cephus during the second half of the season. Should Minnesota manage to slow down Jonathan Taylor early, expect Coan to look for Cephus in big third down spots.
“I had chances to make plays and do some great things for the team this year,” Cephus said Saturday. “I’m not done doing what I want to do here yet...It has been great to make plays when my number’s called.”
Cephus, who missed all of last season due to sexual assault allegations, was found not guilty of both counts this August and allowed to rejoin the team. The missed time was noticeable early on in non-conference play, but Cephus has found his stride as of late, with 21 receptions and two touchdowns over the last six games. He managed to get open twice in four plays during the second half against Iowa, accounting for 74 yards of Wisconsin’s 86-yard touchdown drive that put them ahead of the Hawkeyes for good.
“It’s been a great year...We wanted to make sure that we didn’t lose at Camp Randall,” said Cephus in reflection. “I wasn’t here with the guys building the foundation in the winter and spring, but I was able to fit in by continuing to work hard and build on what we had already.”
Whether it’s Cephus, Taylor or Coan, the Badgers are going to need to play sound offensively if they hope to advance to the Big Ten Championship game next weekend. In what seems like the biggest battle for the Axe in quite some time, Wisconsin understands the challenge ahead of them.
“There are no second chances when you get out on the field,” Biadasz said. “It’s the biggest rivalry in college football. That’s enough said.”