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.
What do the analytics say about the Badgers 2nd half schedule?
Yes, the loss to Michigan has everyone reeling and plenty of people questioning if the Wisconsin Badgers will ever truly become a national contender.
It’s been one step forward and two giant steps backwards every time the path has been there for the Badgers to date. But, the bitter loss to Michigan is in the rearview mirror and it also was the end of the first half of the Badgers schedule.
So, we thought it would be a good idea to see how some of the computers believe the second half of the schedule looks for the Cardinal and White.
Will the Badgers run the table and get to 10 wins again? Is there disappointment ahead?
Answers vary depending on the models used, but let’s explore how analytics see things going for Paul Chryst’s crew.
Unsurprisingly, the analytics tell us that the Badgers are going to have one big game and a whole lot of control towards a potential 10-win season still in the mix.
According to ESPN’s FPI index, Wisconsin will be favored in all but one game the remainder of the season. That one game of course is the trip to Happy Valley to take on Penn State. The FPI index gives the Badgers a 20 percent chance to win that game.
However, they do give the Badgers better odds against most of the rest of the schedule. It starts with a 95 percent chance at winning the Homecoming matchup with Illinois this weekend.
Wisconsin is also favored to win by 80 percent or more in two other games — Rutgers (97.6) and Minnesota (82.9). The Rutgers result is expected given how little resistance the Scarlet Knights have given to other teams at the bottom of the Big Ten pecking order so far this season.
As for the other games, perhaps the toughest to figure out on the schedule will surprise you. That’s because the FPI believes Purdue will be the biggest challenge outside of the Penn State game. Wisconsin has just a 58.2 chance of winning that game.
That leaves Northwestern in two weeks, and the FPI believes the Badgers have a 62.9 percent chance to win that game in Evanston. With the Wildcats finally getting on a win at Ryan Field last weekend, it will be interesting to see how this contest tracks after this upcoming weekend.
So, if all things hold out ESPN’s FPI see’s the Badgers at 9-3 to end the regular season and still winning the Big Ten West division championship. However, their projections have UW closer to 8-4 and that would likely mean a third loss inside the conference and if that is the case it could be an interesting race in the West division.
ESPN’s rating system is just one of many, so what do the others have to say?
College Football Analytics believes a lot of the same things as ESPN does, but they give the Badgers a good chance of finishing 9-3 overall. To be exact, they put UW’s probability of winning 9 games at 64.4 percent.
Perhaps the most interesting projection comes in the Penn State game, where they give the Badgers much better odds of pulling that game off. Currently, UW is given a win probability of 42.4 precent in that game and a score of 40.2 to 32.9.
Like the FPI, this model has the Badgers winning every other game on its schedule and doing so handily over Illinois, Rutgers and Minnesota. It also believes UW’s biggest toss-up game will be against Purdue, where the Badgers are just a 51 percent favorite to win that game.
But, it’s always good to get a third set of data to work with. That comes from the S&P+ system and not shockingly, they too have the Badgers finishing 9-3 on the season.
But, like the CFB Analytics numbers and unlike the FPI, they believe this game is going to be much closer than expected. The S&P+ system believes it will be less than a touchdown difference in the game.
This model also sees the game at Purdue as the biggest toss up on the UW schedule, with the Badgers given a 57 percent chance of winning and only an expected winning margin of 3.2 points.
So, as you can see there is a lot of agreement amongst the analytics side of the college football world.
It’s hard to disagree with their thoughts given the relative softness of the Badgers overall schedule in the second half of the season.
Badgers Hangover: Good secondary play overshadowed by bitter loss
As we all wake up on Sunday following the Badgers 38-13 loss to the Michigan Wolverines, there are plenty of questions left unanswered.
How did this happen? Is it time to move on from Alex Hornibrook at quarterback? What was up with Paul Chryst’s play calling? Can the Badgers stop missing tackles on the edge anytime soon?
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point – we are all left searching for answers to a game that felt like it could’ve easily been the other way around.
We aren’t alone, as the coaching staff is likely to have many of the same questions and self-reflection going on today before moving forward to a matchup with Illinois next Saturday.
But, despite the loss and the hard feelings about how it went down, there was a sliver of good to be had.
That good came in the form of the play of a young, inexperienced secondary for the Badgers.
UW’s secondary was tested not just by the Wolverines passing game, but also by its own issues. First was the fact that starting safety D’Cota Dixon was a surprise scratch from the game due to his leg not holding up in pre-game warmups. That meant UW would not only start one, but two first-time starters at safety with true freshman Reggie Pearson Jr. teaming up with redshirt sophomore Eric Burrell.
Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks were at least somewhat experienced starters at cornerback. It was a good thing considering all the players out with injury behind them.
However, Hicks and Williams each had just one tackle on the night and Hicks would go down early in the game with a leg injury (likely a hamstring issue) and that meant throwing in young Rachad Wildgoose in to the mix.
Wildgoose had five total tackles and a pass break up. However, he also had a key holding penalty on a third down pass that went way over the head of both himself and the Wolverines wide receiver. Instead of getting off the field, Wisconsin had three more downs to defend against.
UW’s defense held up once again, only to have a controversial roughing the snapper penalty wipe out a punt and change of possession. With the game sitting at 13-7 it would’ve been a huge opportunity for the Badgers. Instead, Michigan took advantage of the penalty and after a Karan Higdon 25-yard run it was Shea Patterson punching it in with a 7-yard run off the right side of the line for a 21-7 lead that would prove too much to overcome.
But, for Wildgoose himself, the holding penalty didn’t lead to disastrous play or a let down in attitude. It was just move on to the next play and do what he could to help his team win a game.
Let’s also not forget that Wildgoose is the one that was able to chase down Patterson as he broke loose on what seemed like a touchdown scamper early in the second quarter. Instead, Wildgoose gave chase and caught him at the 5-yard line to prevent the touchdown.
Yes, Michigan scored a few plays later, but Wildgoose did his job well considering where he was in coverage at the time that Patterson got going on the outside.
As for the safeties, well, Reggie Pearson also went down with injury and that forced little-used senior safety Evan Bondoc in to the game before Scott Nelson could come back in after serving the first half suspension for his targeting call last weekend.
But, amongst all the chaos emerged a secondary that allowed Patterson to throw for just 124 yards on 14 completions and never gave up a passing play over 20 yards on the night.
Given this group’s propensity towards giving up those big plays throughout the season, not giving them up was a huge win. So was the fact that the young safeties showed up in a big way around the line of scrimmage.
Pearson and Burrell were seen time and again blowing up plays on the edge early on. In fact, when they were playing near the line of scrimmage, Michigan often struggled to get anything going. It was only after UW backed off the pressure from the safeties that Michigan was able to get things going on the edge.
Yes, the secondary had some bad moments — especially dropping a few opportunities to pick off Patterson, but on the whole this was a positive game for UW’s youthful secondary.
It was a high pressure situation and a severe test of its depth, and Wisconsin’s secondary largely stood up to the pressure Michigan put on it.
As the defense goes forward, the good news is that it can begin to unleash more and more pressure up front as the secondary continues to gain confidence and the coaching staff begins to trust it can count on them on an island.
It happened early on in this game, with the Badgers putting up three sacks and four tackles for loss in the first half alone. Wisconsin would finish with just those three first half sacks, but eight tackles for loss on the night.
Yes, it’s a small sliver of good in a night that still stings as we all wake up from that nightmare finish, but it is important that lessons — both good and bad — are highlighted.
For UW’s defense, the good lesson is that it can seemingly trust its secondary, even when the four players out there have never played together before.
Now about the rest of the night…
Badgers kiss playoff hopes goodbye in loss to Michigan
This game was billed as winner stays alive for the College Football Playoff. If that was the case, then the Wisconsin Badgers just lost its chance, as Michigan took them out 38-13 on Saturday night.
Wisconsin had lost just one true road game with Alex Hornibrook as the starting quarterback. That loss came in 2016 to Michigan in Ann Arbor.
History repeated itself on Saturday night, as Michigan blew out the Badgers and Hornibrook played arguably his worst game in a Badgers uniform.
The junior quarterback completed just 7 of 20 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown to two interceptions. But, the real story was the fact that he managed to not complete a pass from the second drive of the game until 4:49 was left to play.
Meanwhile, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson had over 200 yards of total offense, a rushing touchdown and no interceptions.
UW’s star running back Jonathan Taylor was held to just 101 yards on 17 attempts, as the run game was taken away in the second half and UW’s offense stalled completely.
On the other side of the ball, Michigan ripped the stingy Badgers rush defense for 320 yards on the night. Of that total, 237 came in the second half.
After the Badgers and Wolverines traded touchdowns early in the second quarter, it was all Michigan. The hosts ripped off 31 unanswered points to cement the victory.
The opening scoring drive was a telling sign for things to come for the Badgers defense, as Shea Patterson broke it open with an 81-yard scamper on a designed read-option to the outside. Rachad Wildgoose chased him down at the UW 5-yard line but two plays later and Karan Higdon was in to the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
Wisconsin answered right back thanks to a huge effort from Jonathan Taylor. He racked up 79 yards in the first half, with 33 yards coming on the answering drive.
However, it was Kendric Pryor that would get the Badgers on the scoreboard. He took a sweep around the left side and got a big block on the edge from fellow wide receiver Jack Dunn as he went 33-yards for the touchdown.
UW’s offense sputtered after the Pryor touchdown, especially in the pass game. Hornibrook completed just 3 of 7 passes for 25 yards and the interception in the half.
Michigan opened the second half with the ball and twice the Badgers would shoot themselves in the foot. First it was a holding call on Wildgoose on a third down play that went incomplete that kept the drive alive. Then it was a controversial 15-yard personal foul for roughing the snapper on an actual punt that kept the drive alive.
The Wolverines would make UW pay for those mistakes.
Higdon ripped off a 25-yard run and then Shea Patterson got a 7-yard run to the outside for a touchdown. A 2-point conversion later and Michigan was up 21-7 with 10:21 to play in third quarter.
It was the beginning of the end, as the Badgers could not answer back until the game was all but officially over.
Instead, Michigan was able to get big plays at will on offense and took it to the Badgers when they had the ball. That included a 44-yard touchdown run from backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey who made it 38-7 with 5:16 to play.
Wisconsin got a late touchdown as Hornibrook hooked up with A.J. Taylor to make it 38-13 with 3:47 left in the game.
It was too little, too late for a team that was hoping to make a positive statement on a national stage. Instead, it showed that it wasn’t ready for the big time once again.
UW will look to right the ship after this loss next week as Illinois will come to Madison. Kick is scheduled for 11am CT on FS1.
Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan Wolverines: Preview, predictions and prognostications
Big lights, Big House, big stage.
Wisconsin will take on Michigan in the marque matchup in the Big Ten this week. While we’ve give you things to know and what we’ll be watching for now is the time to put it all together.
How does the Badger and Wolverines clash actually go down? Let’s dive in to the biggest game to date on the Wisconsin 2018 schedule.
1 Burning Question: Was last week’s defensive effort a sign of things to come for Badgers?
This is a two-sided question. One on side of the question is the fact that we finally saw the Badgers get some major pressure on an opposing quarterback. On the other side of the question is the fact that Wisconsin just gave up over 500 yards of total offense to a bad Nebraska team.
Wisconsin’s defense had Martinez on the run or buried in the backfield for much of the contest last Saturday night and ended the night with two sacks and five tackles for loss. Compared to coming in to the game with just three total sacks (no game with more than one) and just 20 tackles for loss as a team, it was a virtual feast for the Badgers defense.
Despite that outburst, the Badgers are still dead last in the Big Ten in both sacks and tackles for loss — and that is very un-Badger like since the switch to the 3-4 defense earlier in the decade.
The hope has to be that the new players are finally coming in to their own. But, then there’s the reminder that Nebraska’s offensive line isn’t, well, very good.
Can the Badgers keep up the pressure while not giving up the big chunk plays it did a week ago? My guess is that this is a sign of things to come and with Shea Patterson nowhere near the level of athlete that Adrian Martinez is, the Badgers may be able to limit his ability to get big plays out of scramble situations.
But, either way things go the point remains that this defense is likely to dictate what needs to happen for the rest of the team. If the Badgers are going to be successful, they can’t go backwards on the pressure front.
2 Key Stats
16: Both Michigan and Wisconsin have scored 16 touchdowns inside the red zone this year.
As much as people want to focus on the defense, both teams have proven to be highly dangerous on offense if they get inside the red zone. In fact, both teams are in the top four of the Big Ten in red zone conversions this year.
Wisconsin is third in the league, converting on 95 percent of its opportunities, while Michigan is converting at a 88 precent clip. However, Wisconsin’s 16 touchdowns represent all but four (88 percent) of their red zone scores this season compared to Michigan’s 16 touchdowns representing just 64 percent of its red zone production.
The opportunities inside the opponents 20-yard line could be few and far between, so converting those in to full points will be huge.
100: Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor has rushed for 100 yards in all five games this season.
It’s no secret that when JT gets going the Badgers become very hard to beat. So far this year, no team has really been able to stop Taylor from impacting a game in a great way for UW.
Taylor leads the country in rushing average at 169.8 yards per game and he is second in total rushing yards. He only trails Darrel Henderson of Memphis (934) and Jamal Jefferson of Oregon State (865) in rushing yards and does so despite having one fewer game than both of them.
Michigan’s defense has been up to the task almost all season long against the run, allowing just 17 of their last 32 opponents to go over the 100-yard mark as a team. The Wolverines are 16-1 when holding an opponent under 100 yards on the ground.
Taylor did go over the 100-yard mark last season, racking up 132 yards on just 19 carries in the Badgers win. However, Michigan did hold him out of the end zone.
Something is going to have to give in this matchup of quality running back and difficult defense.
3 Key Players
David Edwards, RT (Wisconsin)
Wisconsin has one of the top-rated offensive lines in the country, but some would say that right tackle David Edwards is having a bit of a down year. In fact, after being a right-side dominant run team in 2017, the Badgers are doing their most damage on the other side of the line this year.
Given the fact that Hornibrook is left handed and Michigan loves blitzing, Edwards is going to be a key player in the mix on Saturday night. Luckily, the Badgers have given up just 8 sacks so far on the year, a mark that is tied for second in the Big Ten with…Michigan.
Rashan Gary, NG (Michigan)
The Wolverines have a ton of quality players on the defensive side of the ball, but its biggest strength has been up the middle. That has been under pressure as of late with some losses to injury and that includes star Rashan Gary. He missed the first game of his career last week, but don’t expect that to happen this week.
Gary comes in to this game having 22 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks to his name. If Wisconsin can take him out of the game and not allow him to dominate in the middle it could be very helpful to getting the run game going.
Danny Davis, WR (Wisconsin)
Michigan is going to come in wanting to stop the run game. So, that means the Badgers wide receivers are going to have to step up to the plate and make them back off the run game.
The one player who has the best ability to get deep and make Michigan pay one-on-one is Davis. He has only played in three games this season, but so far he is catching up fast with eight receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown.
He’s due for a breakout game and while doing it against a tough Michigan defense won’t be easy, my money would be on Davis being the one that surprises in this game.
Michigan 24, Wisconsin 21
It is tempting to pick the Badgers in this matchup because putting the tape of the Notre Dame game on from earlier in the year reminds me that while Michigan’s vaunted defense can be scary, they don’t do well when the other team actually has the ability to be physical as well.
So, what is holding me back from picking the Badgers? It ultimately comes down to the lack of experience in the secondary and the amount of injuries piling up on that side of the ball.
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