The Badgers wouldn't want to have it any other way, especially when the legendary Paul Bunyan Axe is up for grabs in the longest-running rivalry in college football, which is the situation Saturday afternoon when the Gophers travel to Madison for nationally-televised contest.
The Gophers (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) looked to be ready to reclaim the axe by winning seven of their first eight games (the only set back being a 13-point loss at Ohio State), but Minnesota has started to regress. First was a seven-point loss at home to a Northwestern team playing with its backup quarterback and running back.
The next week, Minnesota pulled a Wisconsin and lost to Michigan. Michigan, who has only beaten U-M and UW in conference this season, racked up 232 rushing yards, something the Badgers (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) have definitely noticed after UW rushed for 441 yards at Indiana.
Moreover, the Gophers, who lost the last four meetings and 11 out of 13 to UW, likely will have to battle the Badgers without their top offensive weapon.
Leading the Big Ten with 74 receptions and is second with 892 receiving yards, to go along with six touchdowns, junior wide out Eric Decker suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter against Northwestern, missed the rest of the game and only managed to play a half last week before the pain became too much for him.
Any question of how important Decker is to the offense just has to look at the numbers. The Gophers have scored zero touchdowns and six points with him out of the lineup, which doesn't bode well for them this Saturday as Decker has been ruled inactive for the game.
"Unfortunately, he's not going to play," Head Coach Tim Brewster said during the Big Ten Conference coaches' teleconference. "He's got a high-ankle sprain and it's just not ready. ... In his best interest, it's just best we sit him and, hopefully, we can get him back for Iowa (Nov. 22)."
Badger fans will remember Decker from the UW game last season, a 41-34 UW victory in the Metrodome. While the wide receiver had six catches for 125 yards and two scores, he'll be remember for punching cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu in the groin during the second quarter.
Although Decker has been ruled out, the Badgers aren't going to believe the Minnesota head coach until the game starts.
"Decker might decide that he wants to play and we need to be ready for him," senior linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "He's probably going to play because of the impact of this game that I think he might play. He's a great player. He had a good game against us last year and we have got to be prepared for him if he plays this year."
While the Badger secondary certainly won't miss Decker, sophomore quarterback Adam Weber, second in the Big Ten in average yards per game (225.6), certainly will. Without Minnesota having an established run game (its leading running back is freshman DeLeon Eskridge at a 61.5-yard average per game and the team is ranked dead last in the conference with only 116 rushing yards per game), Weber has been forced to scramble, throwing for only 105 yards last week and getting sacked four times.
"We're a 7-3 football team," Brewster said. "We're a bowl-eligible football team, coming off a 1-11 season last year. I don't think there's anything that's going to diminish the progress we've made, both on the field and also (in) recruiting."
The biggest recruit Brewster nabbed is former Duke Head Coach Ted Roof, who has taken over a defense that gave up 36.7 points and 518.7 yards per game last season. The turnover has been night and day, as the Gophers rank eighth in total defense (370 yards per game), fourth in the conference in scoring defense (19 points per game) and are first in turnover margin (plus-15) having forced 27 turnovers.
"Whenever you get a Minnesota game, you have to throw away the records," Casillas said. "Like last year, they are going to come out swinging no matter how good or how bad they are doing. It's going to be a competitive game and I try to tell the younger players that you can affect history."
Casillas should know, as his blocked punt in the final minutes of the 2005 game helped the Badgers steal a victory from the Gophers and created another unbelievable moment in the history of the rivalry.
"Looking back on it, it is a monument of my career," Casillas said. "It was kind of crazy how it all happened. I talk to (Ben) Strickland all the time about it because he stole my touchdown. I think it was a great play that boosted my career. Now it's going to be history forever."
With the Badgers a win away from becoming bowl eligible and a win away for UW's senior class being able to boast that the axe never left their possession, Wisconsin knows a win against the Gophers would cure a lot of ailments and create a lot of momentum heading into the final two games of the year.
"You have to beat Minnesota first before anything else can happen," senior tackle Mike Newkirk said. "You have to take one step before you take two. For me, it's easy to keep it simple because (winning Saturday) is the only thing we can control. Everything else in terms of the post season will play out but I know if we win games, we're going to go."
Minnesota (7-3, 3-3) vs. Wisconsin (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten)
Date/Time - Saturday, November 15 at 2:30 p.m. CT
Arena – Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/FieldTurf)
Television - ABC (Terry Gannon and David Norrie)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas)
Series – Minnesota leads 59-50-8
Last Meeting – Wisconsin won, 41-34, on Nov. 17, 2007 in Minneapolis
This is the most-played rivalry in Division I football and has been played continuously since 1890 (except for 1906). Since 1948, the winning team has gained possession of Paul Bunyan's Axe.
The Badgers lead the series 28-21-6 in Madison and UW has won 11 of the last 13 meetings between the teams
Wisconsin has won six straight games in Madison by an average of 22.5 points
The winning team has scored at least 37 points in each of the last eight games
UW assistant coach Kerry Cooks was an assistant at Minnesota in 2005
Wisconsin ran for 441 yards against Indiana, tying a Memorial Stadium record. That total is tied for the sixth-most rushing yards in UW history and was the most yards on the ground for the Badgers since running for 461 yards against Indiana on Oct. 16, 1999.
Indiana accounted for just 274 yards of total offense. Over the last three games, UW's opponents are averaging just 298.3 yards. In conference games the Badgers rank third in the Big Ten in total defense.
Somehow, Wisconsin is a 14-point favorite against the Gophers. I guess Vegas can forget a team that has struggled most of the season after it put a 35-point beat down over a struggling Big Ten team.
Speaking of struggling, look no further than the Minnesota Gophers. Dropping back-to-back home games against an injury-plagued Northwestern team and a really bad Michigan team has more than likely shot the confidence of this group. Throw in the fact that their best offensive weapon probably isn't going to play and by looking at the numbers, Minnesota's offense doesn't stand a chance.
I think the Wisconsin seniors are looking forward to winning its sixth game, becoming bowl eligbile and chopping down the goal posts in front of the Gophers faithful yet again. Fourteen points though? Wisconsin will win, but the point spread is the toughest coin flip of the year.
Wisconsin 41, Minnesota 24
Straight up: 8-2
Against the Spread: 7-3