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.
Wisconsin Badgers vs. Iowa Hawkeyes: Preview, predictions and prognostications
There’s something special about playing under the lights in college football. It’s exactly what will take place this Saturday as the Wisconsin Badgers tangle with the Iowa Hawkeyes.
A Heartland Trophy win is huge by itself, but with this game kicking off both teams’ Big Ten conference season, the implications are even bigger. Can Wisconsin get off to another big lead in the West division title race or will last week’s loss carry over to this week?
Plenty of questions abound for both teams as they enter the Week 4 matchup. Wisconsin does carry momentum in the series, having won each of the last two in the series. A win in this one would match the longest win streak for the Badgers in this series since a 5-game win streak from 1997 to 2002.
With so much on the line, let’s take a deeper look at how this game could stack up.
3 Key Players
Toren Young, RB (Iowa)
A hallmark of quality Hawkeyes offenses has always been a tough run game. So far in 2018, that run game has yet to really scare anyone. Enter a big matchup for Toren Young, who went from UW’s backyard (Monona Grove) to the sworn enemy. So far this season he’s leading the team with 234 yards rushing on 43 attempts and has two rushing touchdowns. They are decent numbers, but Young was held in check by Iowa State’s stout defense in their Week 2 contest. Wisconsin is coming off a brutal performance against BYU’s backs and will have something to prove. If Young can get the ball rolling downhill, the Hawkeyes could control this game.
Christian Bell, OLB (Wisconsin)
Andrew Van Ginkel’s injury has put his status up in the air for this contest. In his place will likely step former Alabama transfer Christian Bell. He’ll have some big shoes to fill, as Van Ginkel started the season off hot. Luckily, Bell looked the part after Van Ginkel went down with injury…but he has yet to record a tackle. That’s been made up for by the fact that he’s already picked up a quarterback hurry and a pass break up in limited snaps. Iowa’s offense is another big test after that BYU whooping up front last weekend. He’s got to pass it if the Badgers are going to win.
T.J. Edwards, ILB (Wisconsin)
Wisconsin’s lone returning All-American on the defensive side of the ball has lived up to the hype early on this season. He’s got 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2 quarterback hurries to his name. This week, Edwards is likely to draw the assignment of spying on one of the country’s best tight ends in Iowa’s Noah Fant. Let’s see if Edwards can keep pace and create plays that will get his team off the field or if Fant’s size and speed combo are too much for him to handle.
2 Key Stats
13.9: That is the points allowed per game on the road by the Badgers under Paul Chryst. It’s one thing to be stingy in the friendly confines of Camp Randall, but during the Chryst era it really hasn’t mattered where the Badgers play — the defense hasn’t really given up points to the opposition. Staying around that 13 to 14-point mark on Saturday night in Kinnick certainly would go a long way towards establishing a win for the visiting Badgers. Wisconsin also finished last season giving up just 13.9 points per game and have allowed just 13.7 so far this year. I think you get the point — getting touchdowns against this Badgers defense isn’t easy.
2: That is the number of losses in Big Ten play when Alex Hornibrook is under center. Sure, it may be debatable as to whether his 13-2 record in Big Ten games is because of him or despite him, but it’s hard to deny that the Badgers have been highly effective against the Big Ten since he took over as a starter. His only losses in Big Ten play have come against Penn State and Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game as well. Can the Badgers find another big win with Hornibrook under center or will the junior’s inconsistency and Wisconsin’s iffy pass protection prove his downfall? It’s hard to bet against a guy who has found ways to win despite adversity time and again…13 times to be exact.
Wisconsin 27, Iowa 21
Going in to Kinnick and winning isn’t easy, especially so at night. However, if there’s a team in the West division capable of doing just that it is the Badgers. There’s no doubt that last weekend’s result was not good — mainly because a strength (the offensive line) became a weakness.
Look for the Badgers offensive line to respond, Jonathan Taylor to go over the 100-yard mark and for Danny Davis to come up with a big touchdown late as Hornibrook works his 2-minute magic per usual. Wisconsin earns a hard-fought victory and begins Big Ten play with a win over its chief rival at the top of the division.
Wisconsin Badgers vs. Iowa Hawkeyes: What we’re watching for
Kicking off conference play with a bitter rivalry game is one thing. Doing so following a bitter loss in the non-conference finale is another.
That’s what the Wisconsin Badgers face as they go to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes this Saturday night.
What could this matchup hinge on? We’re going to be watching for a few key things to tell us how this game is going to go.
Badgers O-Line vs. Iowa D-Line
It’s true, one could likely put this as a thing to watch every year between these mirror image programs. But, in 2018 and following a loss in which the Badgers offensive line played far below expectations, this is going to be a tell-tale sign of how things are going to go on Saturday night.
Winning the battle up front is normally a big deal, but in this contest it truly will be be the difference between a win or loss. UW’s O-Line has to show up in a way it really hasn’t so far this season — against the pass rush.
Iowa comes in to this game with 12 sacks as a team, second-most in the Big Ten behind Penn State’s 13. The Hawkeyes starting defensive line has proven to do most of that damage, with end A.J. Epenesa racking up four sacks already. Anthony and Matt Nelson have a sack each and Parker Hesse has two to his name. That’s a total of eight of the 12 sacks Iowa has put up.
UW’s offensive line has given up six sacks on the season along, which is tied for 10th early on the season.
You can bet this is going to be a huge point of emphasis for the Badgers offensive line and winning it could mean winning the game.
Iowa’s Run Game
One of Wisconsin’s strongest points to its defensive success as of late has been its ability to make offenses one-dimensional. Relying on the pass game is something that usually hasn’t ended well for opponents.
However, early on this year the Badgers defense has had trouble containing the run game of opponents.
New Mexico caught the Badgers off guard with a variation of the option offense in the first half of its Week 2 matchup before settling in and allowing just 77 yards on the ground. Last week saw BYU run consistently against the Badgers defensive group, racking up 191 yards as a team in the win.
It’s led to Wisconsin ranking just eighth against the run in the Big Ten, allowing opponents to put up 130.6 yards per game on the ground.
Iowa is looking to establish a run game behind Monona Grove product Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. The early results suggest that is a work in progress to say the least.
So far this year, the Hawkeyes are averaging 173.6 yards per carry. That may seem high, but given the opponents played they rank just 11th in the Big Ten. Young leads Iowa in rushing, but his 234 yards on the ground is only good for 12th individually in the conference.
Wisconsin can’t let the Iowa’s mediocre run game get going and expect to win. Let’s see if UW can learn from the film Iowa State put up, allowing just 105 yards on the ground in a defensive slug fest two weeks ago.
Can Hornibrook Break Out?
It seems like this is a weekly wish for Badgers fans, and rightfully so. He’s teased us with greatness at various points in his career, but he’s never been able to harness that greatness on a consistent level.
Any hopes of that happening in 2018 seem to have diminished already. It’s easy to see why when you compare his numbers last season to this season — they are eerily similar.
Take a look for yourself:
Yes, you can point to Hornibrook being unlucky to have one of those two interceptions counting against him, but the numbers are what they are and once again we’re seeing a QB that’s efficient when he has to be, but is far from spectacular more often than not.
After an opener in which he put up 257 yards, Hornibrook hasn’t topped the 200-yard mark in either of the next two games. Sure, he wasn’t counted on much (just 11 attempts) against New Mexico, but he went just 18 of 28 and averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt with 190 yards and no touchdowns against BYU last weekend.
If that doesn’t sound like inconsistent football, I don’t know what will from a quarterback.
If ever there was a game for the junior to get back to that level he showed us in the Orange Bowl, this would be a perfect time to do it.
We’ll keep hope alive for a bit longer, but at some point we’ve got to see him turning the corner to believe this team can get to the level needed to compete nationally.
Wisconsin Badgers vs. Iowa Hawkeyes: 5 Things to Know
How do you get over a heartbreaking defeat? The Wisconsin Badgers will find out quickly, as they turn around from a loss to BYU last week with a game against rival Iowa on Saturday night.
The now annual battle for the Heartland Trophy has a lot of attention on it, and rightfully so. Could the winner be the frontrunner for the Big Ten West division?
While we won’t know the answer to that for a few weeks, there are some key facts to know about these teams and this game. So, let’s look at five things you should know heading in to the battle for the Heartland Trophy (and Wisconsin’s continued dominance in the battle for the Rusty Toolbox).
5: A win on Saturday would make Wisconsin the 5th team in Big Ten history to reach 700 wins as a program.
Despite decades of bad football, the Badgers program is on the verge of history. The program currently sits at 699-491-53 overall in its history. Wisconsin would join the ranks of the 700-win club with the likes of Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State and would become just the third long-term member of the Big Ten to make it to that milestone. What better way to reach win No. 700 than to do it against a rival like Iowa?
4: Iowa is looking for a 4-0 start for the fifth time in the Kirk Ferentz era
Good starts to the season generally mean good finishes. Case in point the Kirk Ferentz era for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa has previously started 4-0 in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2015. In three of those four previous seasons they’ve won at least 10 games. The lone outlier is the 2006 season, in which they started 4-0 and limped to the finish line with a 6-7 overall record and a 2-6 record in Big Ten play.
What does that tell us? It tells us that either Iowa wins and goes on to dominate the West division…or it losses and won’t be able to catch the Badgers. Either way, this shows just how important this game is to the future of both programs in 2018.
3: Wisconsin is going for its third-straight win the series with Iowa.
The Badgers are owners of back-to-back wins in this series, taking a 17-9 decision in 2016 and a 38-14 win at Camp Randall last season. UW has also won five of the last six games, including a three-game win streak (2010, 2014, 2015) in the series. In fact, since the East-West division split for the Big Ten, the Badgers-Hawkeyes series
2: Iowa is second in the nation in total and scoring defense.
Whatever you make of Iowa’s schedule heading in to conference play, the fact of the matter is that the Hawkeyes have been impressive on defense so far this season. They are allowing just 209 yards per game and an average of 8.0 points per game. Of course, it’s also been nice to play all three games in the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium, but the Badgers offense is going to be tested much like it was last week against BYU if you look at the stat sheet.
1: That is the number of losses in true road games for Wisconsin under Paul Chryst.
Playing on the road in the Big Ten is supposed to be really hard, but for the Paul Chryst-led Badgers it has been easier than it is supposed to be. UW is 14-1 in true road games in the four years Chryst has been at the helm of the program, and own a 9-game road winning streak. That win streak is second longest active road win steak in the country, trailing only Oklahoma’s 17-game win streak.
Wisconsin’s lone loss on the road in Chryst’s tenure was to Michigan in the 2016 season. That loss was a narrow one, with the Wolverines winning 14-7.
Badgers Hangover: Season far from over for UW
One look at the Twitter universe around the Badgers after Saturday’s loss to the BYU Cougars and it is easy to see Wisconsin’s season is over with.
The common refrain went something like this:
But, the Twitterverse is often not indicative of reality. Such is the case with the all the doom and gloom surrounding the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers season.
As one person on Twitter said in response to a Tweet we made, the season really isn’t lost. The path forward is more difficult, but there is history to show that winning a lot the rest of the season goes a long way towards repairing that one loss early on in the season.
Another thing lost in all of this doom and gloom from around the social media world? BYU is pretty dang good.
The Cougars have played three Power 5 opponents to start the season and are 2-1 — owning wins on the road against Arizona and Wisconsin. It’s loss to Cal was a narrow one and guess what? BYU happens to still have three more games against Power 5 opponents.
Up next for BYU is a date with McNeese State prior to a big one with Washington. Then there is a red-hot Boise State program and a season-ending date with Utah too — all three of them on the road no less. Those are major teams to compete against and potentially win against.
Is it far-fetched to think the Cougars can’t win those games? Not after what we saw on Saturday inside Camp Randall. This is a program that is stout up front, assignment sure and has a quality run game. You can win a lot of games in college football with that formula…just ask the Badgers.
How the Cougars play the rest of the season will only matter if the Badgers do their part and win out though.
That begins with regrouping for a major rivalry game at Iowa on Saturday night. Winning that against a 3-0 Hawkeyes team sets up the Badgers for it’s first step towards national respect once again — controlling its own destiny in the Big Ten West division.
Then there are big matchups with Michigan and Penn State to win as the season goes along. Get both of those games and Wisconsin is suddenly right back in the picture.
Of course, all of this is speculation and if’s and but’s and wonderment. That’s what losing a game will do — make you speculate instead of controlling your own fate.
Ultimately, the Badgers still have their main goals in front of them. Win the Big Ten West division. Play for and win a Big Ten championship and let the chips fall where they may for the College Football Playoff committee.
Wisconsin still controls how those things could happen — even if Saturday’s loss felt like a familiar gut-punch to hype and hope for the Badgers faithful.
It certainly isn’t time to jump off the bandwagon or abandon all hope.
Saturday’s loss hurts, but if we are being honest, one loss doesn’t define a season like it used to in college football. Wisconsin’s reaction to that loss…well, that will define it’s season.
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