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.
Penn State all but ends Badgers West division hopes in 22-10 loss
The chances of a Wisconsin Badgers West division title in 2018 rested on winning out, but the Penn State Nittany Lions had other ideas and frustrated the Badgers in a 22-10 win on Saturday afternoon.
With the loss, the Badgers are all but completely out of West division contention. Wisconsin would need the Wildcats to lose all three of their upcoming games and win out the rest of the way to take the title.
Running back Jonathan Taylor did all he could, rushing for a game-high 185 yards and a touchdown in the losing effort. 71 of those 185 yards came on the third play from scrimmage for UW’s offense, as he raced up the middle to a touchdown.
It would be the Badgers lone TD of the game, as Penn State’s defense got major pressure all day long and never allowed the pass game to get going.
Conversely, Penn State got 159 yards and a touchdown from running back Miles Sanders en route to the win.
Wisconsin also killed themselves with four turnovers, two fumbles and a pair of interceptions from quarterback Jack Coan.
The sophomore, who was making just his second career start, managed just 60 yards on 9 of 20 passing with the pair of interceptions.
He didn’t have much help from his offensive line, as the Badgers gave up five sacks on the day.
For the second straight week the Badgers scored on the opening drive. This week it came on a 71-yard touchdown run by Taylor, who burst through low arm tackles on a 3rd and 2 for the score.
Penn State responded back with an 8-play, 75-yard drive that saw a 14-yard touchdown pass from McSorley to DeAndre Thompkins tie the game up at 7-7 midway through the first quarter.
Coan, making his second start in three weeks, also had his second fumbled snap in as many starts on the Badgers ensuing drive.
Penn State took over at the Badgers 31-yard line but were forced to settle for a 49-yard field goal attempt. It squeaked over the crossbar and gave the hosts a 10-7 lead.
The hosts lead would grow thanks to a 1-yard run by Miles Sanders with 8:09 to play in the second quarter, but a missed PAT would make it 16-7 Penn State leading.
Sanders had a pair of big plays to keep the drive alive prior to his touchdown, ripping off a 17-yard run on the first play of the drive and a 23-yard run on a 3rd and 7 that put his team at the Badgers 17 yard line.
Wisconsin’s offense began to stall out at that point, and it was compounded by an interception in its own territory on UW’s final possession of the half.
Penn State couldn’t turn it in to points, as Issaiah Loudermilk blocked a field goal attempt with time running out on the half.
Following the break, Wisconsin scored on its first possession with a short Rafael Gaglianone field goal to make it 16-10.
It would be the only scoring the Badgers did in the second half as Penn State’s defense shut down them down.
Penn State kicker Jake Pinegar knocked home two field goals from beyond 40 yards in the second half and his six points were enough to ice the game away.
Wisconsin looked like they may score late, but a promising drive stalled out with under three minutes to play. However, a bad snap by Penn State on the next drive was recovered by the Badgers deep in PSU territory.
It was a final shot to get within a score, but one again pressure up front by Penn State dashed those hopes. With the Badgers needing 20 yards for a touchdown on 4th and goal Coan threw his second interception of the game and killed any chance of a miracle comeback.
UW will play Purdue next weekend in West Lafayette, Ind. Kick time has yet to be set but this could be an important game for both teams depending on what happens between Iowa and Northwestern.
Wisconsin Badgers vs. Penn State Nittany Lions: 5 Things to know
November is in full swing and the game everyone believed would be the Badgers swing game has become a matchup between two really desperate teams.
If either the Penn State Nittany Lions or Wisconsin Badgers want to win their division, it starts with winning this game. Simply put, the loser eliminates themselves from contention in their respective divisions thanks to previous losses in the Big Ten (and Penn State is all but 100 percent eliminated heading in to the game).
However, the winner lives to put all sorts of pressure on the other teams at the top of their division.
Will that be the Badgers or Nittany Lions? Let’s take a look at 5 facts and figures you should know heading in to the game.
5: Alec Ingold and Taiwan Deal each have 5 rushing TD’s this season
The senior running backs for Wisconsin have come up big when needed. Yes, Jonathan Taylor’s 11 touchdowns lead the team, but the main backup and fullback are also dangerous weapons with the ball in their hands.
Deal has 5 TD’s on just 65 carries so far this season, while Ingold has scored 5 times in just 20 carries.
Stopping Taylor is a good place to start if you’re Penn State, but Wisconsin has proven there are plenty of other options to get in the end zone in the run game.
4: Wisconsin is 4th in the Big Ten in scoring defense
For all the talk of a down year for the Badgers defense, they are still in the upper group of teams in terms of allowing points. UW comes in to the game against Penn State ranked 4th in the league in scoring defense, giving up just 20.2 points per game. The three teams ahead of them are also the only teams to allow fewer than 20 points per game so far this year.
It’ll be a really interesting matchup between the Badgers defense and Penn State offense, who come in averaging 37.2 points per game which is 2nd best in the Big Ten.
On the flip side, the Badgers are facing a Penn State defense that has been way more suspect on the scoreboard this season. They are 7th in the league, giving up an average of 24.4 points per game. The Badgers are averaging 31 points per game, good for 5th in the league.
The point here is that the combination of points scored and given up are a bigger advantage for the Badgers than Penn State.
3: Penn State owns a 3-game win streak in the series
Few teams have been able to dominate the Badgers the way Penn State has, owning a 3-game win streak in the series between these two schools. But, the devil is in the details on this matchup.
The last meeting was back in 2016, a Penn State win in the Big Ten championship game and the beginning of the streak took place in a 2012 win at Happy Valley. It’s safe to say it’s been a long-term issue for the Badgers as of late, but one with these programs in very different spots.
Penn State also owns a 3-game win streak in games played at home against the Badgers. UW hasn’t won a game in Happy Valley since 2003.
The all-time series between Penn State and Wisconsin stands at an even 9-9 despite those recent dominant numbers for the Nittany Lions.
2: Penn State is 2nd in the B1G in Red Zone scoring offense
Winning the battle in the red zone while on offense is a really good way to ensure you win games. Penn State is 6-3 on the season in large part because it has been successful in the red zone.
Penn State scored on 35 of 37 red zone trips this season — including turning 30 of those 35 scoring drives in to touchdowns. The 81 percent touchdown conversion rate is the best in the Big Ten.
Conversely, Wisconsin’s defense is third in the conference in red zone defense allowing opponents to convert on just 24 of 30 opportunities. That includes just 16 touchdowns allowed, with a 53.3 percent rate which is good for 5th in the league.
It’s safe to say when the Nittany Lions get in to the red zone, conversion of those opportunities will be highly important affairs in this game. That’s especially the case with Trace McSorley’s health in serious question for this matchup.
1: Wisconsin has lost just one game in November in the last 5 years
The final month of the season can be a make-or-break one for a program like Wisconsin. For the past five years or so the Badgers have been able to control their destiny thanks to a great November.
Over the past five years just one loss has happened in the final month and that came at the hands of Northwestern in 2015. Wisconsin is also 5-1 in games against ranked opponents in the month of November since the 2014 season.
UW started this November off with a trouncing of Rutgers, but this is a massive step up in competition level. Will history of success in the final month of the regular season play or or will history between these two teams repeat itself?
Coan made most of 2nd opportunity to lead Badgers offense
With Alex Hornibrook’s return from a concussion, all was back to normal for the Wisconsin Badgers offense against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Unfortunately, “normal” for the 2018 offense has been sluggish starts, off-target throws and bad interceptions.
After seven straight games of inconsistency from Hornibrook, an eighth half of ineffective offense with Hornibrook at the helm had many asking questions about whether it was time to give Coan a second shot when the Badgers came out of the locker room.
With the Badgers leading just 10-0 and Hornibrook responsible for a pair of inexcusable interceptions against a defense that had troubles getting turnovers all season long, something had to give.
Either Hornibrook got things pointed in the right direction or someone else would be better suited to lead this offense. A team with so much promise coming in to the season couldn’t afford that bad a performance against the Big Ten’s worst team.
However, the decision was taking out of the hands of head coach Paul Chryst as Hornibrook took a big hit late in the first half and never returned. After the game, Chryst noted that it was because he may have showed symptoms of a concussion once again.
Following a first half that saw Hornibrook complete just 7 of 16 passes for 92 yards and a pair of awful interceptions, the Badgers offense was led by sophomore quarterback Jack Coan in the second half.
Coan didn’t have to do much at first, as the run game carried UW early on in the second half and paved the way to a 31-17 victory over Rutgers.
However, when Coan was given the opportunity to throw in this one, he took full advantage. Coan finished the game 5 of 7 for 64 yards and a touchdown. He also didn’t throw an interception.
Wisconsin’s run game also went off with him behind center, rushing for over 200 yards in the second half and scoring two touchdowns.
Whatever Coan did or didn’t do as a pure passer, it was hard not to notice that the energy of this team changed out of the half. Coan was much more energetic and much more of a motivational presence on the field than Hornibrook ever has been.
It seemed like he took naturally to being in and the players around him responded to whatever it was he was putting out there. Perhaps it was the nerves gone from getting his first start or playing Rutgers really bad defense.
Either way, whatever it was that clicked, the Badgers coaching staff need to find a way to bottle that up the rest of the way.
Of course, it helps that it was Rutgers defense across the field from the Badgers. But, seeing a young quarterback respond like he did certainly is worth thinking twice about going forward.
It still remains to be seen if Coan in the long-term answer or a short-term band-aid because of Hornibrook’s injury.
Chryst also isn’t one to make snap decisions on personnel either. He stuck with Hornibrook through seven games of inconsistency after seeing the very same thing all of the 2017 season, so what would make him not stick with him?
Health of course, and Chryst mentioned that as the big factor in using Coan or not.
There’s also the consideration of Coan’s redshirt. Wisconsin’s coaching staff has gone out of its way to play redshirt freshman Danny Vanden Boom in mop up duty for Hornibrook to keep Coan’s redshirt season intact.
If Coan plays in the next three games or any three more games in total, he’ll lose his ability to redshirt.
But, does a redshirt trump giving yourself a chance to win big games against Penn State and Purdue in the coming weeks? Does Hornibrook give you the best chance to win those games?
History suggests the junior isn’t good in big games and that the great Orange Bowl performance to end last season was a fluke more than a sign of a corner being turned.
It also doesn’t hurt that Coan rose to the occasion the second time he got the opportunity at significant snaps. His day was certainly a better one than his debut against Northwestern, where UW needed the pass game to get the Wildcats defense off the back of the run game.
While it was a limited opportunity, Coan may have made enough of it to give the coaches enough to think twice about the starting position.
Then again, Penn State in Happy Valley is up next.
It will be an interesting week in the quarterback room, even if Hornibrook is deemed healthy enough to go.
If you’re Coan, all you can do is rise to the occasion when given it. On Saturday he did that, now it’s up to the coaches to make the big decision for the future of this program in 2018 and beyond.
Taylor powers Badgers past Rutgers
The Wisconsin Badgers used a big second half from running back Jonathan Taylor to ease to a 31-17 victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday inside Camp Randall Stadium.
Taylor, who had just 11 carries and fumbled twice in the loss to Northwestern last week, got loose for 208 yards and three touchdowns on the day.
Wisconsin has started slow for most of the season, but that didn’t happen against Rutgers. Instead, the Badgers scored on their opening drive for just the second time all season.
Jonathan Taylor capped off a quick 6-play drive with a 5-yard touchdown to make it 7-0 just 2:35 in to the first quarter.
The game was made 10-0 after Wisconsin pounded their way deep in to Rutgers territory on their third drive of the game. But, the promising 18-play, 78-yard drive stalled out inside the 15-yard line and Rafael Gaglianone knocked home a 32-yard field goal with 14 minutes to go in the 2nd quarter.
It was all the scoring that would happen in the first half.
After the Badgers defense forced the fourth straight punt of the game on the following drive from UW’s field goal, Hornibrook took just one play to throw his second awful interception of the game.
Luckily, the Badgers defense and special teams continued to come up big.
Rutgers had their lone chance to put points on the board blocked by linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel on the ensuing drive. Despite a huge 34-yard return by D’Cota Dixon, UW’s offense couldn’t do anything and were forced to punt inside the Rutgers 40-yard line.
Another defensive stop resulted in a big Rutgers punt to pin the Badgers back at the 1-yard line with just 1:05 left to play in the half.
UW got out of the shadow of its own end zone as Jonathan Taylor busted a 17-yard run off the left side. Taylor would put up 97 yards and the lone touchdown on 17 carries in the first half.
A 15-yard sideline interference penalty on Rutgers following a short completion to Danny Davis put the ball on the Wisconsin 41-yard line with 22 seconds left in the half.
Hornibrook couldn’t get the Badgers in to scoring position though, missing running back Garrett Groshek and then taking a bad sack on the ensuing play to end the half.
With junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook struggling — throwing a pair of interceptions and completing just 7 of 19 passes for just 92 yards — the Badgers managed to lead just 10-0 at the half.
Change happened coming out of the locker room, with sophomore quarterback Jack Coan inserted to start the second half after Hornibrook was ruled out due to an apparent head injury late in the first half.
Instead of throwing him to the wolves, Coan turned in to a handoff machine early on in the half. UW ran 13 straight rushing plays to open the second half.
The Badgers didn’t disappoint on those run plays either, gaining 163 yards and two touchdowns during that streak to really break the game open at 24-3.
The second half got off to a quick start for UW too, as the combination of Taiwan Deal and Taylor took over. Deal went off for 38 yards on two carries and on the very next play it was Taylor busting loose for a 38-yard touchdown run to make the game 17-0.
Rutgers finally got on the board on their next drive, but failed to turn a 1st and goal at the 9-yard line in to a touchdown. Instead, the Scarlet Knights settled for a 22-yard field goal to make it 17-3 with 4:17 to play in the third quarter.
The Badger run game couldn’t be stopped and the second possession of the half also ended in a big run from Taylor for a touchdown. This time he punched it un untouched up the middle from 18 yards out for a 24-3 lead.
Rutgers offense got explosive plays late from running back Raheem Blackshear. He actually did most of his damage in the pass game, collecting 8 receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown.
That included a late TD to make the game 31-17 with 1:01 to play and after the Badgers had answered a previous Rutgers scoring drive.
UW wouldn’t let this one get any closer as the run game kept working and eventually wore down the rest of the game clock.
Wisconsin will take on Penn State in Happy Valley next weekend, with game time still unknown.
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