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Badgers still hate Gophers despite dominance in rivalry

Wisconsin has owned Minnesota on the gridiron for over a decade and the end doesn’t seem in sight, so does this game really mean a rivalry exists?

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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.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Projecting the Wisconsin Badgers 2019 defensive depth chart

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Yesterday we took a look at how the Wisconsin Badgers offense may look heading in to spring ball. Today, we turn to the other side of the ball as UW looks to figure out life without its lifebloods the last few years.

UW will face life without two of its biggest stars — inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly — as they head in to 2019 and there’s little question that replacing them will be the key to just about everything in this offseason.

But, that isn’t the only question to be answered and we’ll attempt to answer them all with a look at how we see the potential depth chart set itself up.

Defensive Line

End

1. Garrett Rand, RS Jr.; 2. Aaron Vopal, RS So./Isaiah Mullens, RS Fr.
1. Isaiahh Loudermilk, RS Jr.; 2. Matt Hennignsen RS So.

There was a significant drop-off in pass rush and overall production from the 2018 Badgers and a lot of it can be attributed to a very thin defensive line. UW lost Rand before the season, and Loudermilk couldn’t shake the injury bug after a summer leg injury hampered his start to the season.

In 2019, both should be back and healthy and it will make a big difference. Both Vopal and Henningsen got a ton of experience and should be better off for it, but behind the scenes I’ve heard rave reviews for the game of Mullens and wouldn’t be surprised to see him jump in to the mix quickly in 2019.

Nose Guard

1. Bryson Williams, So.
2. Gio Paez, Fr.

Wisconsin is going to need young players to step up and provide depth in 2019, just like it needed Bryson Williams to do so in 2018. The good news is that Williams could be trusted and got plenty of playing time, starting a few games to end the season after Olive Sagapolu’s season was cut short. While we could see walk-on senior Gunnar Roberge as a backup, my money is on 2019 signee Gio Paez helping big time off the bench.

Outside Linebacker

1. Zack Baun, RS Sr.; Tyler Johnson RS Sr.
1. Christian Bell RS Jr.; Noah Burks RS Jr.

The only thing that seems set for the Badgers in 2019 at outside linebacker is that Zack Baun will be one of the starters. However, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem afoot.

Instead, Wisconsin has a chance to find out what they have with about four players who could all easily become the starter opposite of Baun. My money is on former Alabama transfer Christian Bell becoming that player, as he saw more and more of the field as 2018 went on. He’ll get an interesting challenge from former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and the man who backed up Baun last season, Tyler Johnson. Don’t sleep on Izayah Green-May either, as he’s one of the most intriguing pass-rushing prospects on this roster.

Inside Linebacker

1. Chris Orr, Sr. 2. Mike Maskalunas, RS Jr.
1. Jack Sanborn, So. 2. Griffin Grady, RS Jr.

Losing Edwards and Connelly is going to hurt, but we’ve seen a ton of depth at this position over the last few years. Orr would’ve started for most teams in the conference the last few years and will have his final season to impress NFL scouts. The real interesting mix will be how the play of Sanborn, Grady and Maskalunas works itself out in the offseason.

Sanborn playing the snaps he did in 2018 suggests he’s the front runner, but the good news is this position will likely see plenty of rotation and even starters won’t be meaningful given the depth.

Cornerback

1. Rachad Wildgoose, So. 2. Caesar Williams, RS Jr.
1. Faion Hicks, So. 2. Deron Harrell, RS So.

Wisconsin saw a lot of youth work in at cornerback in 2018 and when the dust settled they appeared to have found some pretty good players for the next few years in the likes of Wildgoose, Hicks and Harrell for sure. Expected starter Caesar Williams disappointed in his opportunity and we could easily see Madison Cone get in to the mix here as well. The name to watch this offseason is Travian Blaylock, who played in four games this season as a true freshman and was able to keep his redshirt.

Safety

FS: Reggie Pearson, RS So.; Collin Wilder, RS So.
SS: Scott Nelson, RS So.; Seth Currens, RS Jr.

This may surprise some of you, because we all saw Eric Burrell start in the Pinstripe Bowl due to injury to D’Cota Dixon. However, I believe the talent of Pearson and Wilder is so good that they may bypass him this offseason. It’s a nice problem to have to say the least.

Nelson is a lock to play at strong safety after starting all season in 2018. However, it was an up-and-down freshman campaign and more consistency will help this group grow immensely.

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Projecting the Wisconsin Badgers 2019 Offensive Depth Chart

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January is perhaps the most dead period of action for a college football player and for the Wisconsin Badgers it’s been a period of waiting for answers to NFL futures for a few players.

We’ve gotten those answers and that means we have a much clearer perspective on what the Badgers 2019 depth chart will look like when then head to Tampa Bay to take on USF in the season opener on Aug. 31.

With that in mind, let’s break down the depth chart as we see it playing out heading in to spring ball in a few months time.

Quarterback:

1. Jack Coan, Jr.
2. Graham Mertz, Fr.
3. Danny Vanden Boom, So.
4. Chase Wolf, RS Fr.

First, the smart bet is on Alex Hornibrook not returning to football after major issues arose following a concussion later in the 2018 season. That said, a lot of outside pressure will be on naming Mertz the starter. I believe that won’t happen right away and Coan will be the one that gets the nod for the start of 2019. His level of play increased as he got on-field reps and could be enough for a stop-gap until Mertz is either ready to play this season or they try to keep his redshirt available and allow him to start in 2020.

Running Back

1. Jonathan Taylor, Jr.
2a. Garrett Groshek, RS Jr.
2b. Nakia Watson, RS Fr.
3. Bradrick Shaw, Jr.
4. Julius Davis, Fr.

Get ready for the swan song of Taylor’s career in the Cardinal and White. He’s been a record-setter already and that should continue in 2019 baring injury. With Taiwan Deal and Chris James graduated, someone has to step up in to the role of the true backup option. It could be a returning Bradrick Shaw, but Nakia Watson showed real promise and could be in line for major snaps this season too. Groshek will continue to be a primary pass-catching and extra blocking option, but don’t expect his role to expand as a runner.

Fullback

1. Mason Stokke, RS Jr.
2. Quan Easterling, Fr.
3. John Chenal, So.

Over at fullback, the Badgers will have to live life without Alec Ingold, who was a stalwart at the position. Converted linebacker Mason Stokke is going to get the first look, but Wisconsin went out and got a scholarship fullback in Quan Easterling for a reason. Don’t be surprised to see him get a serious look in fall camp and maybe take the job from day one.

Wide Receiver

1. Danny Davis, Jr.
2. AJ Taylor, Sr.
3. Kendric Pryor, Jr.
4. Aron Cruikshank So.
5. Taj Mustapha, RS Fr.
6. Jack Dunn, RS Jr.

There isn’t a position deeper on the Badgers offense than wide receiver. While the production didn’t match the hype coming in to 2018, let’s chalk that up to bad QB play first and foremost. The combination of Davis, Pryor and Taylor is a good one and UW continues to add quality and speed at the position.

No question looms larger at wide receiver in the 2019 offseason than what happens with the cases pending against Quintez Cephus. Will they resolve themselves in 2019 and will he back on campus or in prison? If it’s the first one, the Badgers have a huge playmaker back, if not, they’ll need to find a downfield playmaker more than ever. It was a giant missing piece to the puzzle in 2018.

Tight End

1. Jake Ferguson, RS So.
2. Luke Benzschawel, RS Jr.
3. Kyle Penniston, RS Sr.
4. Cormac Sampson, RS Fr.

Jake Ferguson’s first season lived up to the hype of his high recruiting ranking, as he became the go-to receiver in big situations. But, the Badgers expect more out of the position in 2019 as they hope to get a healthy Luke Benzschawel back to help in the blocking game. Look for Cormac Sampson to also emerge as his understudy and an intriguing overall prospect for the future too.

Offensive Line

Left Tackle: Cole Van Lanen, RS Jr., Logan Brown, Fr.
Left Guard: Jon Dietzen, RS Sr., David Moorman, RS Jr.
Center: Tyler Biadasz, RS Jr., Kayden Lyles, RS So.
Right Guard: Jason Erdmann, RS Sr., Alex Fenton, RS So.
Right Tackle: Logan Bruss, RS So., Tyler Beach, RS So.

Wisconsin went 1-of-2 on getting potential early entrant NFL prospects back for 2019, as Tyler Biadasz turned down a potential 1st round situation to stay in Madison. UW will only have to replace David Edwards, Michael Dieter and Beau Benzschawel instead of all four of the potential draft picks.

The biggest question at offensive line is just where 5-star Logan Brown fits in. Will he work inside first and maybe take on right guard before sliding out or will he compete with the likes of Bruss and Beach at right tackle or will he slot in behind Van Lanen for a year at left tackle?

This group is going to be fun to watch shape out over the next eight months.

Overall Thoughts:

Wisconsin brings back a ton of talent at wide receiver and running back, but they do have a lot of questions (both major and minor) to answer at key positions like starting quarterback and along the offensive line.

Those likely aren’t going to be sorted out by the end of spring ball, so expect this depth chart to fluctuate a lot in the coming months. I do feel confident in this is how it will look to start the offseason though.

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Mertz has record-setting day at The All-American Bowl

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There was plenty of hype and hope for incoming freshman quarterback Graham Mertz. The newest Wisconsin Badgers quarterback did little to slow down the hype with his performance in the annual All-American Bowl.

All Mertz did was was stand up and make everyone take notice on the biggest stage in high school football.

Against some of the best players and with some of the best players in the country, Mertz rose above them all. He completed seven passes in the game, five of them going for touchdowns and racked up 188 yards.

Both his five touchdowns and 188 yards were The All-American game records. All of it added up to him winning the MVP award for the game.

Mertz’s ability to throw big passes all over the field was on full display. He threw with touch and even most of the incomplete passes he had were put in positions for his receivers to make plays on the ball.

It’s that touch and big-play ability that has been missing for a few years now in the Badgers offense.

Of course there are things he’ll need to work on at the next level, but he showcased an ability to make the basics look easy and plenty of promise as well.

Mertz’s big day caught the eye of some big names around the world of football.

It wasn’t just those in attendance or the hopeful Badgers faithful that were excited by what Mertz did on the day. Names like Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs took to Twitter to mention him.

His fellow Badgers commits Dean Engram and Julius Davis also had comments.

Oh, and the Badgers football Twitter account couldn’t miss a chance to hype the early-entrant quarterback either.

Obviously we won’t know if his play at the high school level will translate right away to the college game, but it’s hard not to see his passing skills and wonder what could be for the Badgers offense in the near future.

Ultimately, it will be his ability to take on the offense and make the needed plays in the spring that will dictate his ability to make a quick or slower impact at Wisconsin.

However, if playing with and against the best players in his incoming class is any indication, there’s no reason to suggest he won’t be a player who ends up starting at Wisconsin and likely in relatively short order.

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Badgers 2019 signees in All-American games

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The Wisconsin Badgers capped off a disappointing season with a second butt-kicking in a row of the Miami (FL) Hurricanes. With that the offseason officially started.

So, next up on the calendar are the high school All-American bowl games.

While the Badgers success wasn’t great on the field, off the field it was arguably the best class in UW recruiting history and officially the greatest in the recruiting rankings era (since 2000).

Certainly that means the Badgers will be represented in the All-American games and you would be right.

So, let’s take a look at the players that are in the various games over the next week.

The Under Armour All-American bowl game started things off on Thursday night and Wisconsin walk-on kicker Blake Wilcox (Kettle Moraine High School) was the lone UW representative in Orlando.

He is a punter and kicker and could take on both duties for the Badgers in the coming years, but is also still coming in to his own in the football kicking game after being a top soccer player at Kettle Moraine up until his junior season.

There wasn’t much reporting done on Wilcox or the specialists as a whole at this game, but the crew from Kohl’s Kicking Camps are in love with what Wilcox brings to the table so early in his career as a kicker and punter.

Meanwhile, at the All-American game in San Antonio (the former U.S. Army All-American game) the Badgers have their two highest profile signees in quarterback Graham Mertz and 5-star offensive lineman Logan Brown participating.

By all accounts, Mertz is having himself his usual high-end showing around scouts and in competition.

He was ranked as the No. 2 player in the first day of practices according to 247Sports and the No. 3 QB of the day in day 3 of drills.

From 247Sports:

Mertz continued to showcase his clean mechanics and smooth feel in the passing game. The Wisconsin pledge is at home operating from the pocket and looks to be a strong fit for the Badgers’ offense under Paul Chryst. On Thursday, Mertz had one of the better throws on the day, hitting a tight-window touchdown to Virginia Tech signee Jaden Payoute, who was running a crossing route in the back of the endzone.

Rivals believed he was the best looking QB on the East squad after the first day of drills.

Brown has lived up to advanced billing for those who haven’t seen him already, stoning multiple pass rushers in one-on-one drills. He was ranked as one of the Top 10 overall players at Day 3 of practice by 247Sports.

We’ll see how he holds up in team scenarios on Saturday, but it appears he could be a plug-and-play player for a Badgers offense seeking to replace a pair of guards in 2019.

Overall, it appears the biggest names are performing at or near the very top of their groups while going up against elite talent.

Given the pressure that is likely to be on this group with the high ranking they received, these types of performances are good signs indeed.

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