The last 12 meetings in Minnesota have been decided by an average of 4.5 points, with Wisconsin winning three straight by seven or fewer points, meaning history suggest that Saturday's meeting at TCF Bank Stadium should be another highly entertaining affair.
"I can remember a previous year when they came in 1-10 and played us down to the wire at their place," said senior Aaron Henry, referring to the 41-34 game in the Metrodome in 2007."You can get all the records and the statistics because it's going to be a dog fight."
Three weeks ago, Wisconsin appeared to be heading toward an undefeated season and a trip to the national championship game because of a high powered offense led by senior quarterback Russell Wilson. Minnesota was again heading for the scrap heap after guaranteeing its fifth losing season in six years, which included home losses to New Mexico State and North Dakota State of the FCS and a 58-0 embarrassment at Michigan.
Needless to say, the surroundings involving the two teams have been drastically altered in less than a month. Wisconsin (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) lost back-to-back road games and walloped a sacrificial lamb in Purdue. Minnesota (2-7, 1-4) on the other hand is playing some of its best football of the season, buying into the toughness and discipline style that first year coach Jerry Kill brought from Northern Illinois.
After losing its fourth consecutive game, Minnesota scored two touchdowns in the final 8 minutes 22 seconds to rally for a 22-21 victory over Iowa to retain the Floyd of Rosedale trophy for the second straight year. Last weekend, the Gophers hung with Michigan State in East Lansing through four quarters before falling 31-24 in a game where the Spartans outscored the visitors 10-0 in the final quarter to avoid the upset.
It was two weeks that validated why the Minnesota athletic department gave Kill a seven year extension before the Iowa game. Although his team was 1-6, they were starting to show promise.
"We wanted to take a few shots," Kill said after the game. "Game plan-wise, I think we gave ourselves a chance to win. We did on defense, also."
One of the big reasons the Gophers have become competitive is the development of junior quarterback MarQueis Gray. After starting seven games last season as a wide receiver with fifth-year senior Adam Weber at quarterback, Gray transitioned to the position over the year and has finally started to look comfortable.
Gray scored on a fourth-down, two-yard sprint to register the winning score against Iowa and came back the next week against the Spartans by going 19 for 32 for 295 yards and three touchdowns –all career highs – and two interceptions. Gray also added 71 yards rushing on 21 attempts, a breakout performance that came against the nation's second-ranked defense.
"He played awfully good. He gave us an opportunity (to win)," Kill said. "I think at the end of the game, the kid was physically exhausted. He gave everything he had - but that's how you learn."
Gray is completing just 52.4 percent of his passes and has seven touchdowns to six interceptions, but the 6-4, 240-pound athlete is getting noticed because of his abilities to make plays with his feet, drawing slight comparisons to Nebraska's Taylor Martinez. Gray is the team's leading rusher with 571 yards and he has accounted for 1,806 of the Gophers' 2,842 yards.
His passing numbers are what they are because of senior receiver DaJon McKnight, who is averaging 15.3 yards per catch and had his best game of the season against Michigan State with three touchdown receptions and nine catches for 173 yards, both career highs.
"MarQueis is able to do a multitude of things, create plays with his feet and throw the ball," said running back Duane Bennett, the team's second-leading rusher at 448 yards. "I feel like with the offense that we have, (the coaches) have turned over the reins to MarQuies to let him do what he wants. I feel like we are going to as far as MarQueis takes us."
The Gophers haven't beaten the Badgers since 2003 and haven't beaten a ranked Badgers team since a 28-21 victory Oct. 23, 1993. Beating a disarrayed Iowa team is one thing, but Kill knows Wisconsin brings something entirely more challenging.
"There are no weaknesses on that football team," Kill said. "They're two plays away from being the top two or three in the country, maybe the top team in the country. Just two shots away. So their running back is special. He's special, no question about that. Quarterback's special. The receivers are special.
"They can't be special unless you're good up front. And every football team that ever wins has got to be good up front on the offensive and defensive line. So they've (been) good up front for a long time. They've got two seniors that are playing very well on the right side. That's who they are. They're a good football team, we understand that."
No.18/No.18 (AP/BCS) Wisconsin (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten - Leaders) vs. Minnesota (2-7, 1-4 Big Ten - Legends)
Date/Time - Saturday, November 12 at 2:37 p.m. CT
Stadium –TCF Bank Stadium (50,805/FieldTurf)
Television - Big Ten Network (Eric Collins, Chris Martin and Dionne Miller)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas), Sirius Ch.135, XM Ch.194
Series – Minnesota leads 58-54-8 (37-22-2 in Minneapolis)
Last Meeting – Wisconsin won, 41-23, on Oct. 9, 2010 in Madison
Since 1948, the winning team has gained possession of Paul Bunyan's Axe. The Axe, named after the mythical giant lumberjack, was implemented by the National "W" Club at the University of Wisconsin. The National "W" Club created a new axe in 2000 for the two teams to play for. The old one became unsteady and the six-foot long handle was running out of room for scores. In 2003, the Wisconsin and Minnesota athletic departments donated the original axe to the College Football Hall of Fame.
The Slab of Bacon trophy was the precursor to the Paul Bunyan Axe, the trophy awarded to the winner of the annual Minnesota vs. Wisconsin football game. The Slab of Bacon was created in 1930 as a way for the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin to commemorate their rivalry.
The trophy was a piece of black walnut wood carved with a football. The football was topped by a letter "W" or "M," depending on how it was held. Scores of each Wisconsin-Minnesota game were printed on the back of the trophy. When the Slab of Bacon changed teams, it was presented to the winning school by a sorority from the losing school.
In the mid-1940's, the Slab of Bacon went missing. It was replaced by the Paul Bunyan's Axe in 1948. The Slab of Bacon was found in 1994, nearly 50 years after it mysteriously disappeared. It was found by an intern from the men's sports information office while cleaning out a storage room.
Although it was officially deemed "lost," it had been maintained for some time. When it was discovered, the scores of every Wisconsin-Minnesota game from 1930-70 had been engraved on the back of the trophy. Former Wisconsin football coach Barry Alvarez said at the time, "We took home the bacon … and kept it."
The Slab of Bacon trophy currently is housed in the Wisconsin Football Office. The winning team has scored at least 31 points in each of the last 11 games.
Each of the last four games in Minneapolis has been decided by a touchdown or less (average margin of victory – 4.3 points)
A Badger has run for at least 100 yards in 10 of the last 11 games against Minnesota. A UW running back has scored at least two TDs against Minnesota in nine of the last 10 meetings.
UW RBs coach Thomas Hammock spent the last four seasons as Minnesota's running backs coach.
Bielema has compiled a 56-18 (.757) record in his five seasons at Wisconsin, the fourth-best winning percentage among active FBS head coaches.
Montee Ball was named Big Ten co-Offensive Player of the Week after rushing for a career-high 223 yards and three TDs against Purdue, despite playing just one series in the second half. That's the second-highest total for a Big Ten RB this season.
The Badgers rank fourth in the country in scoring offense, averaging 47.0 points per game. Last year, UW averaged a school-record 41.5 points per game. The only Big Ten team to average 47.0 points per game over an entire season since 1916 was Penn State in 1994.
UW is ninth in the country in scoring defense, allowing just an average of 16.1 points per game. Wisconsin has not allowed fewer than 20.0 points per game since 2006.
Wisconsin did not have an interception in the first three games of the season and had forced just one turnover. In the last six games, the Badgers have nine INTs and three fumble recoveries. UW has converted its last 10 turnovers gained into touchdowns, all during Big Ten play.
Wisconsin's defense has been on the field for 109 possessions this season. Of those, the opposing offense has failed to get a first down 43 times (39.4 percent). The Badgers have recorded 32 3-and-outs, they have forced seven turnovers and four drives ended halves.
Minnesota has come from behind in each of its last 11 victories, dating back to the 2009 season.
Senior linebacker Gary Tinsley leads the Gopher linebacking corps with 60 total tackles so far this season. He ranks No. 2 on the team in total tackles. Tinsley has 171 tackles to his credit for his Gopher career.
Wisconsin is one of seven Big Ten schools that Minnesota holds a winning record against.
Senior safety Kim Royston wasn't even supposed to be on the 2011 version of the Gopher football team. He thought his career might be over when he suffered a gruesome compound fracture of his lower leg. His initial recovery went well enough that many thought he would play in 2010. But the recovery saw a setback derail his senior season. However, the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility.
Somewhere on his way to the unemployment office, Tim Brewster is laughing. So what if he was fired midway through his fourth season with a 15-30 record, his website has been shut down and he hasn't tweeted anything on his @Play4Brew Twitter account since October 10, 2010. His arch nemesis, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, saw his perfect season and national championship hopes end on a Hail Mary and saw hopes for a second straight Big Ten title take a serious hit when a defensive breakdown allowed a wide-open receiver at Ohio State.
Now the Badgers are coming into Minnesota 0-2 in true road games while the Gophers are coming off their biggest home victory of the season, all of which must mean seven years of futility against Wisconsin will finally come to an end when the Gophers' players, led by sixth-year super senior Kim Royston, charge across the field and find the axe, which they correctly identify as Paul Bunyan's Axe by using historical photos from the Metrodome celebration in 2003. That would certainly give Brew something to tweet about.
We've talked about history in this story and Wisconsin has had good results in this series running the football under Bielema, having averaged 425.8 yards of offense and 238.8 rushing in taking all five meetings with Minnesota under UW's coach. That trend looks to continue for two reasons. One, Wisconsin racking up 605 yards of offense and 364 rushing - its most yards on the ground since gaining 441 against Indiana on Nov. 8, 2008. Two, Minnesota is 11th in the league in points allowed (33.7 per game) and tied for 10th against the run (191.1 yards per game, 18 TDs).
It's the main reason the points spread for this game is 27.5 points in favor of Wisconsin. A month ago, I'd say the Badgers covered that by halftime and we can all move on with our lives. Now, I am not so sure. Dare I say Minnesota has looked better than Wisconsin over the past three weeks with its win over Iowa and solid performance at Michigan State? Probably not. Do I say weird things happen in Minnesota with worse Gophers team than this? Yep.
It's just a feeling that I am getting but I think Wisconsin is due for a clunker and I am afraid this is it. In an ode to Brewster, Minnesota ties it with no time left, Kill's coaches card says to go for two and the Gophers pull the shocker with a touch of irony.
Minnesota 36, Wisconsin 35
Straight up: 7-2
Against the Spread: 6-3
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