Head coach Tracy Claeys
Q. What has Wisconsin been able to do? The few times you've played them, you've come up with just enough. I know so much of the game planning for them has been focused on running backs, but where does Stave's success come from?
TC: Listen, in the past you have to concentrate on the running game. They've got a Heisman Trophy candidate in the back field the last three years, I believe. So that's where your attention goes. You know you're going to give up a few play action passes. You hope you don't give them up over the top. That's where we've made mistakes. Not staying over the tops of routes and getting them tackled.
But I think this style of offense that Paul's gone back to fits him a lot better than what Coach Andersen was doing with all the quarterback runs. I think he manages the game much better from the pocket. So he's played awfully well, and it will be a challenge.
Q. What do you think the bigger motivation is for the kids this week? Is it the Axe?
TC: There is no, to me, there is no comparison. It's the rivalry game and getting the Axe. No disrespect to the bowl but that's a side product to this. I don't think you're respecting the tradition if you go and talk about the bowl games, because this Axe has been in play for a long time, and we haven't had it for a while.
So without a doubt, that is the No. 1 priority. Our goal is to bring the Axe back to Minnesota, and then the bowl game would be a by product of that.
Q. How about for offensive lines, is their line as good as they've been in the past?
TC: They've lost a couple kids, so runwise, they're not doing as much run stuff. I see all the time coaches do what their kids do well, and I think Paul has done a good job of that. They're throwing the ball more because they don't have necessarily the Heisman candidate in the back field. But they still run it awfully well and good enough to keep you honest. But then he's added some passing game things to it that makes you play more balanced.
The thing you can't fall into is giving them a two-way go. We still have to be able to stop the run and get them in throwing situations or we're going to be in trouble. But, yeah, they're not as heavy run, but at the same time they're a lot better throwing the ball than what they've been.
Q. How about the receivers?
TC: Do a good job of catching it. I think the possession routes, they go up ask catch the ball and make the plays to keep the chains moving. So it's a little bit more complicated in the passing game, little bit more passing routes.
The other difference is defensively Dave's been our defensive coordinator. I think this is his third year. They're more comfortable with the 50 defense, their kids are, they're playing a lot more of it. Not as much four-man front. Their kids are playing fast and they're doing a lot of studying and blitzing.
I think defensively for where they've lost some of the running game on offense, they've definitely picked up on how well they're playing on defense.
Q. Do you expect any of the injured starters from Saturday back?
TC: Not right now, no.
Q. I know that every year you do it on its own merits, but every year you come out of that Wisconsin game and not getting the Axe, does it increase the urgency?
TC: Not really. The day we show up on the game for the Axe and we play better for four quarters than Wisconsin does, we'll bring the Axe back home. It's a very simple formula, it's hard to execute.
Q. This game has been so physical over the years. You've both kind of come into this beat up. How ready do you think this team is for that kind of brawl?
TC: I tell you we've three pretty good brawls here. This time in the rivalry there are a lot of the small aches and pains go away when it comes time to kicking off. So both sides, I expect, will play very well. Hopefully we can hang in there and make a game of it. But I think our kids will answer the bell and be ready to go.
Q. A lot has been made over the protocol with the Axe and the end of the game the last two years. What is your take on the best way to handle that?
TC: Beyond believing in tradition, I've told you that all along, football traditionalist. Before the game we'll make contact with them and make sure that's all worked out so we don't have any issues. But whatever the tradition of the game is, I think you need to do the tradition of the game. We'll get that worked out. There won't be an issue.
Q. Coach Kill reportedly is going to be at the game. What kind of impact will that have?
TC: It will be good to see him. He's going to participate in the Senior Day before the game, which he should. He's the one who recruited those kids here and just had a lot to do with their development. Obviously not just the kids, I think players and even the fans, it will be good for them to know. For everything that he's done for here and how that all went down, I think it would be a very appreciative day for him to be here.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover
Q. What makes them so good defensively this year?
ML: You know what? When you play the 3-4, a lot more teams are going to it, but on our schedule we don't see it a whole lot. It's like a defense having to prepare for option. What happens is it's just different. Your combinations up front are different. Who is dropping, who is rushing from a quarterback standpoint, even though on the back end they're going to be pretty much similar to a lot of other people we see, it's who is getting to those spots if they're playing zone coverage.
Really, I think they've just bought into their system. I think they've got players that fit really well, with it being year three. I felt like the first year we went back and watched the game from two years ago. They didn't play much of the 3-4. I don't even think they felt comfortable with how the pieces fit that first year. But you can see each year they play it more and more to where I really think their personnel-wise are fitting really well into what they want to do scheme-wise.
Q. Is Brooks a physical runner? Again, he's had a number of big runs. Do you see that part of his game?
ML: No, the physical part is the part that's impressed me the most. We knew he was a kid that had some breakaway speed and had some shiftiness. But our big concern early on was was he going to be physical enough in the Big Ten, ironically enough. As we went through the season -- because it's hard in this day and age with football, it's hard to know how kids are going to tackle in fall camp. How kids are going to handle being tackled because you don't do it nearly as much as you used to. So it really was the good looks we had a chance to see of Shannon as once the season started.
That's why we kind of realized, okay, this is a kid that he was kind of a high school kid. He broke a lot of runs, a lot of long run. He was shifty. But the physical part was a pleasant surprise for us. We knew he was a tough kid, but not as punishing as he'd like to be.
Actually Tracy was joking. He had a chance on one run to maybe juke a safety, and he decided he wanted to go right down the middle of him. Tracy said that's good once in a while. But every once in a while you may want to take that shoulder away, get outside, and get a few extra yards. So he's learning. But the physical part has definitely been a really nice surprise for us.
Q. Could you play he and Rodney in the back field at the same time when they're both healthy? Is that an option? Is that something you look at?
ML: Yeah, and I tell you one of the things that helps us is they've both got really, really good football IQs. They can do a lot of different things. That helps you from the standpoint of the versatility part. The tough thing is just knowing that they're both going to be healthy or feeling confident that come Saturday those guys are both healthy type of thing. That's what's held us back in something like that.
We have done that in the past at other places when you have two guys, and it really, the great thing about it is neither one of them are afraid to step up and block.
It gets to that point where when those kids want to do that so they're on the field, then you know you've got something good
Q. When Jonah went down, are you think, what next?
ML: Yeah, yeah. You know what though? It's a great example of when Jonah goes out, I don't have any idea. Some people are saying it's a helmet. Some people are saying it's an injury. Chad Fahning runs in there, and he's a kid that at the beginning of the year, that light wasn't too bright at the end of the tunnel for him being able to play. He was a work team guy, just a guy helping out. But he paid attention, took advantage of whenever I needed somebody, he would step in. Knew exactly what he needed to do, and he went running in there, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't holding my breath.
We're trying in two minute to go down and score, and he's going against a pretty good pass-rusher kid from Illinois. He held his own. I'm proud of him because that shows a kid that even though, like I said, that light wasn't very bright, but he stuck with it, and he stayed with it, and kind of through attrition he was the next man up and jumped in there and did a great job. So I'm proud of him without a doubt.
Q. You guys have had moving pieces on the offensive line since week one, yet you've kind of shored things up in the pass protection, and Brooks has had big games. What do you look to as some of the keys for the success you've had recently?
ML: I think you hit the nail on the head. Any time you can have any continuity on the offensive line, I think that goes a long way. One of the things is that we have three fifth-year seniors in there, and all three of those kids love football. I'd be the first one to tell them if they were sitting here, they're not the most talented kids, but they're warriors.
A kid like Foster Bush, he was starting for us at guard last year early in the season and got replaced. You know what? They're college kids. That is a hard thing for a kid to take. He could have gone the other way. He could have said, okay, I'm going to ride out the string. I'm going to kind of do my thing. He hung in there and in some respects he's been our MVP in the O-line because he's kind of brought it all together. Then Jon Christenson, those guys, I was hoping to get them each 40 snaps a game at left guard and trying to get through the year.
We're ending the season with those two playing both guard spots. Every week they look all crippled up on Sunday, but they're giving me everything they've got. By Tuesday and Wednesday, they're feeling better and we get them going again. So the continuity there and the combination of there is a group of kids there that love to play the game of football, and I think that's really made a big difference.
Q. They really shut down your passing game last year. Part of it was how they shut down Max. And your receiving corps were down, lost Drew last year. How far are you now at receiver compared to going into that game last year?
ML: Well, I think the biggest thing is that it has a lot to do with Mitch. As I talked about before and I think Mitch would be the first one to tell you he had that security blanket with Max last year. And really, their defense did a great job of isolating, making sure that wherever Max went, they were going to have somebody kind of like a box of one in basketball and have some people zoned around him. Max was going to get a lot of attention. I think we have more versatility.
I think we do have more weapons. Like you said, Drew's healthy this year and contributing. Obviously, K.J. has really come on. Rashad still is a guy that people are going to have to keep an eye on because he goes out and makes plays. Then our tight end, we're more pass catching threats with our tight ends. Not just Max and a couple guys that block. Nate Wozniak hasn't had the opportunities that Brandon Lingen has.
But he's a better receiver than what we had last year. So I think the comfort level with Mitch now is I can go through my progression, and it doesn't have to be Max or bus. I have a lot of different people. And if I read it through, somebody's going to be open.
I think that makes a huge difference for him. I think he's finally gotten that comfort level, and that's what we've seen in the last four or five weeks.
Q. How much does it bother you guys haven't gotten the Axe yet?
ML: You know what? It is a big deal. It's a big deal for everybody involved. I was talking to Adam Weber, and he never won it. Now you're starting to go back to before. I think the biggest thing is as coaches we've got to kind of temper between whipping these guys into a frenzy on Tuesday, but also understanding, hey, this is a big deal for a lot of reasons. We've got to be business-like about it.
But there isn't anybody that walks the halls of this building that doesn't walk down the steps down to the second level where we have the murals and everything and sees that Axe and says, man, I want to grab ahold of that thing.
I told the O-line on Saturday after the game we take a group picture after every time we win one of the trophy games, and I still don't have. I have a space open in my den for one of those, for the Axe. Everybody knows and everybody will be ready to go. Those kids will play their tail ends off. They understand.