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.
REPORT: Former Badgers QB Hornibrook transfers to FSU
It apparently didn’t take long for former Wisconsin badgers starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook to find a new home.
After spending a few days on a visit to Florida State, reports indicate he will land with the Seminoles.
Hornibrook announced his intention to graduate in May and move on from the Badgers in a statement at the end of February.
His move to FSU makes a lot of sense, as the Seminoles have a huge void at QB and hardly anyone in the position group this upcoming season.
Following the dismissal of former starting QB Deondre Francois, the Seminoles has just one scholarship quarterback on the roster.
That was redshirt sophomore James Blackman, who has started in the past but also explored his own potential transfer this offseason.
As for the Badgers, this spring will see a wide open competition for the starting quarterback job.
There is four-game starter Jack coan, along with walk-on Danny Vanden Boom. We’ll also get the first big look at redshirt freshman Chase Wolf and the highest rated quarterback to come to Wisconsin in Graham Mertz.
It appears both sides of this transfer are getting what they want and that’s the best outcome you could hope for.
Hornibrook won’t have to compete with four other quarterbacks and the Badgers can get a better read on their realistic options for 2019 and beyond this spring.
2019 NFL Combine results for Badgers players
The next step up for many former Wisconsin Badgers is the NFL. For eight players that step included an invite to the annual player combine, where teams test and poke and prod players for an entire weekend.
So, how did the Badgers fare? Let’s take a look at results and talk coming out of the combine.
40-yard dash: 4.81 seconds
Bench Press: 20 reps
Vertical Jump: 33.5″
Broad Jump: 119.0″
What was said about Dixon (from Lance Zierlein): Although he was an interchangeable, versatile safety in college, Dixon may need a more static position in the pros to minimize his exposure. He can handle man cover duties, but his instincts and anticipation aren’t good enough to make up for his lack of closing burst and his lack of height limits his ability to challenge deep jump balls. He does have some talent, however, and could compete for a backup role with an eye on dime linebacker or a Cover-2, Cover-4 safety.
Prospect Grade: 5.26 (NFL Backup or Special Teams Potential)
40-yard dash: 5.24 seconds
Bench Press: 20 reps
What was said about Benzschawel: Tall, pass-blocking specialist who will need to prove he can be serviceable against NFL power in the run game to become a future starter. Benzschawel plays with good technique and an understanding of blocking concepts in the run game, but might lack the play strength at point of attack NFL teams look for. However, his allure to GMs and offensive coaches could be his ability to match up against athletic, sub-package rushers in today’s quickness-oriented rush approaches.
Prospect Grade: 5.55 (Chance to Become NFL Starter)
40-yard dash: 5.23 seconds
Bench Press: 21 reps
Vertical Jump: 28″
Broad Jump: 105.0″
3-cone drill: 7.88 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.81 seconds
What was said: Durable, capable guard/center prospect who knows how to play the game but might lack the athletic elements needed to become a full-time starter on the next level. Dieter’s experience in a variety of pro-style rushing schemes and his overall technique work are in his favor while his experience across the line offer flexibility that could lock him into an NFL roster as an early backup with the potential to step in and start if needed.
Prospect Grade: 5.60 (Chance to Become NFL Starter)
40-yard dash: 5.28 seconds
Bench Press: —
Vertical Jump: 25.5″
Broad Jump: 99.0″
3-cone drill: 7.69 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.77 seconds
What was said: Quarterback-turned-tight-end-turned-right-tackle who has maintained his light feet but is missing functional strength and body control to hold his ground against NFL power. Edwards isn’t the technician we’ve come to expect from the Wisconsin program and he’ll need additional technique work to help make up for some of his physical deficiencies. He’s still a pup as an offensive lineman and he should improve with more experience and weight room work, but it’s tough to project him behind average backup to low-end starter at this point.
Prospect Grade: 5.44 (NFL Backup or Special Teams Potential)
40-yard dash: 4.66 seconds
Bench Press: —
Vertical Jump: 34.5″
Broad Jump: 118.0″
3-cone drill: 7.09 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.31 seconds
What was said: Connelly fits the Wisconsin mold of tough, productive linebackers who end up lacking either size or speed as NFL projections. He’s not big enough to play SAM and he’s not fast enough to play WILL so he’ll end up as a slightly smaller/slower 3-4 or 4-3 inside backer. He does a decent job of playing around his deficiencies and finding ways to make impact tackles and he’s fairly instinctive is zone coverage. He has the demeanor and play traits to become a solid special teamer with average backup potential.
Prospect Grade: 5.36 (NFL Backup or Special Teams Potential)
40-yard dash: —
Bench Press: 16
Vertical Jump: —
Broad Jump: —
3-cone drill: —
20-yard shuttle: —
What was said: Stout four-year starter who shows up and does his job each week as a banger in the box with surprising ball skills to flip the field. He improved each season and his off-season weight loss is indicative of how seriously he takes the game. He lacks desired chase speed and might be maxed out as a player, but he doesn’t make many dire mistakes that hurt his team. Edwards is a backup inside linebacker for a 3-4 or 4-3 defense with the ability to step up and handle starter’s duties if needed.
Prospect Grade: 5.47 (NFL Backup or Special Teams Potential)
Andrew Van Ginkel
Bench Press: 17
Vertical Jump: 38″
Broad Jump: 123.0″
3-cone drill: 6.89 seconds
20-yard shuttle: 4.14 seconds
What was said: Unimposing 3-4 outside linebacker with decent athletic ability but a concerning lack of aggression as a run blocker and consistency as a pass-rusher. Van Ginkel has the motor to tally stats with effort and secondary rush, but he needs a better rush plan and more proactive hands to set him up for success in attacking the quarterback. He will need a lot more strength and toughness to hold up as a run defender, but his length and production on special teams could give him a shot at the back end of the roster or on a practice squad.
Prospect Grade: 5.0 (50-50 chance to make an NFL roster)
Hornibrook’s gone, but questions remain the same for Badgers QB’s
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
It’s hard to argue that the formula that the Wisconsin Badgers have used for nearly 30 years has been highly successful. Play great defense, pound your opponent in to submission and catch them with a deep ball or two along the way.
UW has gone to six Rose Bowls, participated in two College Football Playoff bowl games and won six Big Ten titles in those nearly 30 years and with said formula.
But, that last part has been missing from the Badgers offense for awhile now…you know, since Russell Wilson stopped dazzling us with his rocket arm and escapability back in 2011.
From Joel Stave to Alex Hornibrook and other quarterbacks in between, the UW offense has struggled to find that guy who makes opponents respect his arm enough to stop stuffing the line of scrimmage.
With the news on Wednesday that Hornibrook would be transferring from the program for his final season, the competition is now wide open for the next Badgers starting quarterback.
The bar for success is admittedly low, after all, the Badgers finished 102nd in the country last season with 14 interceptions and 119th in passing offense (157.7 passing yards per game). Nearly anything would be better than what the quarterbacks of 2018 produced.
Losing Hornibrook does mean losing an experienced player, but does it matter much when that player had 33 interceptions in as many games played?
Sure, he was 26-6 as a starter over three years. But, was that because of or in spite of him? I’d argue having one of the best defenses and running back groups in the country has been the driver of that success, not Hornibrook.
Which brings me to the question at hand — is there a quarterback on the Badgers roster that can be someone other teams have to respect? Is there another player ala Russell Wilson, who is capable of taking this offense from ground and pound to three dimensional?
Let’s start with a look at the only quarterback on the roster to play a college game — Jack Coan.
Last season we got the biggest glimpse of Coan to date and what was shown wasn’t all that promising. He played in five games, starting four and completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 515 yards and 5 touchdowns to 3 interceptions.
There was plenty left to be desired, but I also wonder if it was because of too much protection from the coaching staff or just not being ready for the situation. Often the game plan called for Coan to dink and dunk the ball and he was never really given the opportunity to unleash the deep ball.
It seemed like the coaching staff was trying hard to get away with not having to put the game on the sophomore quarterback.
Coan now has those four starts under his belt and with Honribrook out of the way has the experience advantage over everyone else. But, is experience enough?
We’re about to find out, because the Badgers have one of the top quarterbacks in the 2019 class in the fold this spring in Graham Mertz.
Last we saw him, he was setting records at The All-American Bowl game en route to MVP honors. He was flinging the ball deep and accurately, something Badgers fans haven’t seen from a quarterback since Wilson came in to save this team in 2011.
But, there is bound to be a learning curve as Mertz transitions away from spread-based concepts to more under center work. How that transition goes this spring and how quickly he understands and executes the playbook will be telling.
The good news is that we’ve seen Mertz challenged against the best competition in the country at the quarterback position and he’s lived up to billing on every occasion. If ever there was a QB up to the challenge of playing early in a Badgers uniform, it is Mertz.
But, that doesn’t mean he has to be “the guy” either. There are other options to consider already on the Badgers roster.
Both Danny Vanden Boom and Chase Wolf flashed moments of potential all last offseason. In fact, Vanden Boom outplayed Coan throughout most of last spring before tailing off a bit in the competition in the fall.
Could Vande Boom pick it back up this spring and become a viable option? The former Kimberly star and walk-on at UW certainly has played at a level that makes giving him a legitimate chance this spring worthwhile.
On the other hand, Wolf was one of five quarterbacks in the mix last offseason and his reps have been limited. He’ll likely see many more this spring and it’s a chance to shine.
There’s no doubt he’s the dark horse in the race to replace Hornibrook, but with a full year of studying and learning the Badgers offense you never know what will happen when he gets his chance this spring.
All of this leads me to this conclusion — no one, not even the coaching staff has a real answer as to whom will lead the Badgers offense in 2019. If anyone tells you they do, it’s just an uneducated guess at best.
But, what I do know is that spring camp provides the coaches and players the best opportunity to fully understand what the quarterbacks could be capable of in 2019.
There’s little need to get work in in the run game save for the offensive line, but what is going to be important is pressure-testing the quarterbacks. Doing so in a controlled environment like spring ball is a great way to do so.
If the Badgers want to transform from a good team to a great one, they’ll need to find that transformational quarterback as soon as possible. It could also be that the coaching staff needs to find ways to transform the Badgers offense in small ways to take advantage of the quarterback’s strengths.
Hopefully there’s a positive answer that emerges following spring ball.
Hornibrook leaves Badgers, enters name in transfer portal
The Wisconsin Badgers will have a new starting quarterback in 2019, as senior quarterback Alex Hornibrook announced his departure from the program.
“Alex informed us of his decision to leave the team earlier today,” head coach Paul Chryst said in a statement. “He contributed to a lot of our recent success and we want to thank him for all he did for our program. We wish him the best of luck.”
Not only is Hornibrook not playing for the Badgers next season, he has also entered his name in to the transfer portal and will look to play elsewhere next year.
Hornibrook went 26-6 in three seasons as a starting quarterback for the Badgers, including a 20-4 record in Big Ten games. His .813 winning percentage is the best of any quarterback in program history.
He ranks in a tie for third all-time at Wisconsin in touchdown passes (47), fourth in completion percentage (60.5%) and fifth in passing yards (5,438).
That would normally suggest this loss is a big blow. But, there have always been serious questions as to just how much he was contributing to the cause of that 22-6 record.
Additionally, he benefited from longevity quite a bit. Hornibrook started from his redshirt freshman season played in the majority of three seasons, which hasn’t been the normal rate for quarterbacks in college football or at Wisconsin specifically.
There are also the mounds of interceptions to consider as well, as Hornibrook threw 33 interceptions to just 47 touchdowns in his first three years. He also contributed 11 interceptions towards last season’s 14 total as team. That ranked 102nd in the country.
The Badgers will start their search for a new starting quarterback on March 26.
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