Wolfson: Upset Badgers, and Gophers' season would border on success
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In the lobby of the Gibson-Nagurski Gophers football complex, a loop of the week's opponent plays on the TVs incessantly.
This week's highlight package takes just a bit longer to reset than most.
The Badgers lead the Big Ten in scoring (47 points a game), total offense (503.2 yards per game) and rushing offense (246.4 yards per game).
Asked if he's been able to get to his rest this week, Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said, "Oh, yeah/ I'm getting my sleep."
But that doesn't mean he hasn't tossed and turned, oh, once or twice.
How couldn't he?
While the rivalry with Iowa is important, nothing tops Badgers week.
The problem is it hasn't been much of one for over a decade. Wisconsin has won seven in a row in the series and 14 of the last 16.
Win on Saturday, and as much as a non-bowl season can be a success, it would be.
Justin Conzemius, Gophers safety/linebacker from 1991 to 1995, recalled the speech he gave to the team on Wednesday after practice:
"Coach Kill asked me to address the team about the importance of the rivalry. I talked about how this rivalry is the longest played in all of D-I football and goes back to 1890. How this is a border battle that goes beyond the men on this team to the entire 5 million people in the great state of Minnesota.
"This is also a trophy game. There's nothing bigger than getting the Axe back. I then talked about how our victory in 1993 (beat the eventual Rose Bowl champs 28-21 at the Metrodome) remains one of my top life moments, right up there with the births of my 7-year-old son Cade, who thinks he is the next coming of quarterback MarQueis Gray, and my 5-year-old son Drew, who looks to be the next Brandon Kirksey. That got a few laughs.
"I then made the analogy of how this year's battle is very similar to the 1993 battle -- QB transfers in from Northern Arizona (Darrell Bevell), they had two of the top running backs in the country (Brent Moss and Carl McCullough) running behind the biggest linemen in the country along with a defensive front seven that were the best in the Big Ten. No one gave us a chance as Vegas pinned us as 28-point underdogs. We had the best week of preparation in my five years at Minnesota and everyone knew after practice on Thursday we would win the game.
"What they need to do on Saturday is what we did -- come out of the box hot. We were up 21-0 at half and Wisconsin was shocked. They stormed back and we made some big plays with five interceptions and one fumble recovery that I got. We had a third-string defensive back that had lost his starting job come back to seal the win with a red-zone interception - he was ready to play when he was called on. Last but not least, (what is necessary for a win on Saturday) a call to action -- it has been seven years since the Axe was home.
"I told them, 'Make sure on Saturday when you storm the Wisconsin sideline to get it back that they remember it!'"
Doug Kingsriter, Gophers 1970-1972, All-American tight end 1971, also recently addressed the team. His experience in his words:
"I watched practice that Wednesday before the Iowa game and was just plain inspired during their skeleton drill (7-on-7) -- backs and receivers versus defensive backs and linebackers. It was a really stepped up version in that the receivers were getting popped hard by the DBs after catching the ball. During the drill a fumble was caused, and the whole defensive sideline lit up with cheers of support for their teammates. From my perspective, that part of practice was on the edge of a full scrimmage, and I was really taken by the intensity of both offense and defense.
"In my 2 minutes with the team, I described that drill and the highly contagious emotional support they showed for their teammates. I said that kind of total engagement with what is happening on the field -- teammate to teammate, with demonstrable expressions of support -- is the spark that ignites the stadium, and makes those of us who have played want to get our helmets on. When we see you giving everything you have, in or out of the game, then our souls are stirred to be one with you. We don't need waving towels to get our attention; when we feel your emotion and desire to win, you will have everything we can give as fans. I closed by telling them the emotional engagement they displayed during practice was their beginning toward becoming a winning team.
"About the Iowa game, it was a thrilling win. I am so proud of how the team has played these last two weeks. Proud for them and for our program.
"The future? We have a football program! We have engaged former players who are in complete support of Jerry Kill. He is leading the team toward success by having them do the things that successful teams do."
Kim Royston, former Badger and current Gophers starting safety, participated in a Q&A session.
Normally, Wednesday practices go until 5:15. This one went until 5:50. It must've been intense ...
We have to cover all of our bases. When you have a trophy game like this -- Wisconsin -- we have to make sure we have all our chips lined up to have a successful chance to win the game.
What does this game mean to you?
So much. It's kind of a culmination of everything I've been through. Being at Wisconsin -- I have friends on the team and it's a great university. But I had to make the decision that was best for me. I want to win the Axe being a Minnesota guy. I want to win it more than anybody.
Who are you still friends with?
The two closest are Nick Toon (WR) and Aaron Henry (S) -- the fifth-year seniors.
Talking to those guys this week?
Yeah, I texted Nick Toon a little bit. We traded words. But it's all in fun. But once we hit the lines, there's no friendship.
It's a nice two-game homestretch for you: the Axe game and then senior day vs. Illinois...
Three more games left. Two more at home. Have no regrets.
Do you hate Wisconsin?
My mom taught me to never hate anything. But this is probably the closest thing.
OK then, do you dislike Wisconsin?
I definitely don't like Wisconsin being a Minnesota guy and being on the other side now. There's definitely a dislike. We haven't had the Axe here for seven years. It's time for it to get back to Minnesota.
Can this season be salvaged with a win on Saturday? If you finish the year with wins over Iowa and Wisconsin, it's a borderline success.
No doubt about it. Football has its ups-and-downs. Our record may not be the best. But if we win these final games, the fans will get behind us, and it'll teach the younger guys how to win. Things would look better for next year.
Your health: you're not practicing much on Tuesdays. How hurt are you? What are you playing through?
After having my gruesome injury (broken leg), I don't look at injuries the same way. As far as I am concerned, I haven't been hurt this year. I have little tweaks, so they want to keep me fresh and healthy. But after everything I've been through, I'll take the injuries I've been through this year.
How much are you thinking about getting ready for the Combine? Finding a way to make money playing football next year?
Obviously, it's in the back of my head. Everything will take care of itself -- just how I finish the year and the team. There's really nothing you can do about that stuff right now except going out and playing hard.
How much do you embrace being a leader?
That's definitely something I do have to do. I'm not a rah-rah guy. I like to lead by example. I think that's the best way to lead.
When did you evolve into such a good tackler?
Football is a rep sport. I always thought I was a good tackler. The more you're out there, the more chances you get, the better you get. This game this weekend will definitely test out my tackling abilities.
Who's more important to Wisconsin's offense, quarterback Russell Wilson or running back Montee Ball?
Russell Wilson. Every year Wisconsin's had a running back that can accumulate a lot of yards. I think you could put a lot of running backs back there and have a successful running game. That quarterback is the engine behind it all. I look forward to playing against them.
On the Badgers
For a Badgers breakdown, we turned to NBC-15 Madison sports director Robb Vogel.
When you saw the opening line of Wisconsin -28.5 points, what was your reaction?
It raised an eyebrow. If the game were in Madison, I'd understand it because -28.5 is what it says on the card! I kid because I know the pain. It also didn't seem right to me when you factor in the Gophers improved play and recent history in this rivalry when this game is played in Minnesota. Too often the game has come down to a blocked punt made or missed field goal or some other craziness The Badgers will score, but they'll also give up some points. So, why would anyone feel comfortable giving up that many points if they were so inclined to wager an adult beverage with their friend on the other side of the border.
We know what Bret Bielema thought of Tim Brewster -- remember last year's handshake? What does he think of Jerry Kill?
From the day Kill was hired I've never heard anything but respect directed toward Jerry and his coaching staff from Bielema. I think he likes someone who has earned this job by building and winning with programs on the way up the ladder. His quote at this week's press conference was one I've heard the Badgers head man say in the past about Kill: "I was for Jerry when he got the job but I wasn't excited for us. I knew he was going to be a big challenge for us". And he wasn't reading off the card when he said it.
If the Big Ten could put together an All-Star team of defensive players, how many points could the Badgers score against it?
The Badgers would score but the final numbers can be a bit deceiving. Don't forget that at Michigan State they trailed by 14 points in the 4th quarter scoring "only" 17 points until things got into a 2 minute drill mode late in the 4th quarter. They also were pretty much held in check by a great Ohio State front line. Their first touchdown came thanks to a short field after a fumbled punt. Then, trailing by 12 in the 4th quarter, a similar hurry-up mode produced a later Badgers touchdown to take the lead. Their good but they can be slowed by a good defense.
Who's more important to the offense: QB Russell Wilson or RB Montee Ball, and why?
It's a question that you can make a case for either answer and not be wrong but I'll go with the new QB Wilson for a couple of reasons: First, Ball is a great back who will end up holding a number of records this season and for his career should he choose to return next year. Ball can do it all and comeback to do it again the next play. Ball's importance has gone up even more considering the step back in production by James White this season. That said, this team would be nowhere near as potent if Russell Wilson weren't the one pulling the trigger. The expected starter Starer hurt his arm in fall camp after the next best guy tore his ACL again in the spring. In the spring game, people were falling asleep waiting for a completion by any of the cast of characters battling for the job. The same depth chart with unproven freshman Joe Brennan would have run over South Dakota but the rest would have been a crapshoot. I'll take the Heisman candidate having the slightly bigger impact.
Who are the other difference-makers on offense?
It all starts and really ends with the offensive line. Nick Toon & Jared Abbrederis are solid wide receivers. Jacob Pedersen is a good tight end who Bielema thinks could end up being the best in the long line of greats they've had here over the past decade. James White has had a sophomore slump, but still should be a good running back. All of that said, it's all about the offensive line. Their only two losses came when they were met by very athletic defensive lines which took away or at least slowed down the Badgers running game. Konz, Fredrick, Wagner, Zeitler & Oglesby are the difference-makers.
Who are the other difference-makers on defense?
The defense has fewer difference-makers. Their overall stats are padded by a Reusse midsection like soft non-conference schedule. Part of their recent struggles are due to injuries, which left the Badgers thin at cornerback and cut into the depth at defensive line. The two biggest playmakers are the men in the middle: Inside linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor along with safety Aaron Henry are the guys that will make the big tackle, interception, or force a fumble. Taylor is a junior from the Green Bay area who has always looked he born to be a star at that position. injuries slowed him early in his career but he's making up for lost time now. Borland has football player in his Ohio native blood. He's shorter than coaches would like and has battled through two serious shoulder injuries, but when he's on the field he instantly becomes the most versatile and dynamic player. His natural position is on the outside, so his challenge now is to play with the discipline needed on the inside. Expect to hear the names Taylor and Borland making the tackle a lot Saturday.
If you had to scheme to contain Wisconsin's offense, what would you do?
I'd pay extra attention to Justin Schultz on the power play. Wait, wrong border battle this weekend! The answer is simple, but doing it is not. You need to win the battle up front to have a chance and even that's not a guarantee. Ohio State did & Michigan State at least battled to a draw yet still both of those games came down to a final pass play. If you can make the Badgers into just a passing team you'll have a chance but if they're going to be allowed to run it down your throat then Paul Chryst will do it until you force him to do something else. In six of the Badgers' nine games, Wilson has only attempted 21 or fewer passes. So, grounding it out is just fine with the Badgers despite Wilson talent.
If you had to invent ways to score on Wisconsin's defense, what would you do?
First would be to get good field position by taking advantage of the Badgers' suspect special teams. From punt blocks to big kick and punt returns, the Badgers have been terrible in this department the past three weeks. Early in the season they had problems defending on the edge, be it running plays or passing once starting cornerback Devin Smith was lost for the year. The injury to David Gilbert (DE) didn't help either, but he could finally be back this week. Communication, especially between cornerback Marcus Cromartie & safety Shelton Johnson has been the biggest breakdown in the losses. Early in last week's loss it happened again but the Badgers seemed to get better as the game went along. Keeping this unit off the field not only exposes their weaknesses but also forces the Badgers' offense to sit on the bench, which is the best way to contain them.
Yes or no: Wisconsin will be playing in the Dec. 3 Big Ten championship game, and why?
Maybe? I'll know better after what happens in Happy Valley Saturday. If the Joe Paterno fate becomes enough of a distraction or Nebraska just comes in and hands it to PSU, I willing to say yes. I can see Ohio State losing to Michigan on the final week or the NCAA coming down on them (probably unlikely though) to open the door for the Badgers to run the table. But the jury is still out on Bielema as a good in-game coach when push comes to shove. His numbers vs. top 20 & against teams with a pulse on the road suggest he's more of a John Daly type. He's got a few majors to his credit but there are far more swings and misses. Bielema is 7-11 vs. Top 25 (1-1 in 2011) with most of the wins coming at Camp Randall.
How big a deal is the Axe/this rivalry to the Badgers? Their top rival?
The Axe is still a very big deal. Unlike the Gophers, the Badgers only have two trophy games and the other (Heartland Trophy vs. Iowa) was created just a few years ago and requires the entire offensive line to pick the dumb thing up. Just like the schools storied hockey programs, there have been a lot of Minnesota kids on the Badgers roster over the years and they love going back home for this game. At Big Ten media day this year, I asked the Gophers in attendance if they could only win one trophy this year, Floyd of Rosedale, Little Brown Jug or the Axe, which would it be & all quickly responded "The Axe." The Badgers have bigger rivals in terms of recent games (Ohio State & Iowa most notably) but this is the only game where guest speakers are invited in to remind players of what winning this game means to everyone in the program
How good of a coach is offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who was definitely talked about for the Gophers job?
Paul Chryst is one of the elite offensive coordinators in all of college football.But what separates his from most of the others is that he runs an offense more NFL-like than the others, which run more shotgun, no huddle, up tempo type of attacks. I've been saying for years that I never understood the Badgers inability to land a big time quarterback recruit. If you were a high school QB hoping to play in the NFL someday, wouldn't you want to play in an offense that most feature the formations, plays and personnel the most resembles that of the pro level? With Wilson & Bart Houston on the way, it appears they may finally be getting that kid.
Who wins, and why?
I'll take the Badgers by a touchdown. In part because I think they're the better team. In part because that's about the deciding margin each game played in the Twin Cities over the past 15 years and because I'd like to be able to show my face around Madison next week. If it's any consolation to Gophers fans, I'll pick the Rodents, I mean No. 1 Minnesota hockey team in a sweep over the Badgers this weekend in Madison! Should be a fun weekend for everyone on both sides of the border. At least until Monday night's beat down in Titletown!