Preview: Border Battle Renewed

Taking care of home-field advantage to begin the 2009 season, Wisconsin football take its 4-0 start to Minnesota, facing an upgraded Gophers team that hasn't won Paul Bunyan's Axe since 2003.

MADISON - Walking off the field victorious in the conference opener Michigan State, junior Zach Brown remembers how quickly things shifted toward this week's opponent.

"I remember seeing that axe right there in the locker room," Brown said. "He made me realize that it's time for Minnesota and that it's time to come out and play."

Sophomore J.J. Watt, playing his first game against Minnesota, already knew where the axe was, as the defensive tackle has been salivating over it since enrolling in the program.

"I have been looking at the axe all summer long and now I can really focus on it," Watt said. "That's all we care about and all we want is that axe back in Wisconsin. We don't want it to be in Minnesota for more than a couple of hours."

After holding serve at home to open the season, the Badgers first road trip of 2009 will take them into the most played rivalry in Division 1 football for a border-battle match-up against Minnesota this Saturday.

For a heated rivalry though, Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) has had little problem keeping the trophy case for Paul Bunyan's Axe occupied, as the Badgers have won five straight meetings in the series and 12 of the last 14, the only two setbacks coming in 2001 and 2003 in Minneapolis.

But the past three years have been different under Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster, who is starting to push the program in the right direction after the Gophers' 1-11 2007 season. In the last two match-ups between Brewster and UW head coach Bret Bielema, UW has won by an average of only five points and this year's Minnesota team has more going for them than in year's past.

For starters, Minnesota's front seven is much improved and will be a notch better than what the Badgers saw last weekend. Minnesota seniors Garrett Brown and Eric Small are big in the middle on a defense that is fourth in the conference with 10 sacks.

Despite the Badgers dodging a minor bullet, as Brewster has suspended right defensive end Cedric McKinley (11 tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries) and reserve safety Tim Dandridge for two games for violating team rules, the Badger offense will be in for a stern test with linebackers Nate Triplett and Lee Campbell, who are first and second on the team in tackles, respectively.

"What I said last week that to this point, Michigan State provided the best defensive line we would face, and I think it gets upped this week," Bielema said. "I say I like, but I don't like, how good they are. They've done some good job of recruiting guys up front."

Recruiting has become the big key factor for Brewster since taking the head job in 2007. Not only has Minnesota wowed recruits by moving to the brand-new outdoor TCF Bank Stadium, Brewster has scheduled top notch non-conference competition, something that the Badgers haven't.

In addition to scheduling home-and-home series with Southern California and Texas in the not-so-distant future, the Gophers played at Syracuse and home against Air Force and California before conference play began, a slate of games Brewster believes prepared the Gophers for the upcoming tests they will face, including Wisconsin.

"This is the type of schedule we want to play," he said. "We are a fairly well battle tested football team at this point, and I think it's really helped us. It helps our fan best, it certainly has helped our recruiting in a big-time way and it's really helped our football team."

Offensively, junior quarterback Adam Weber (219.8 yards per game, five TDs and five INTs) has taken every snap the last two seasons and can make plays with his arms and his legs. Minnesota's running game started to find some traction against Northwestern, as the unit ran 42 times for 166 yards, the best it has done against a Big Ten team since 2007.

And then there's Eric Decker, arguably one of the best wide receivers in college football. Decker leads the Big Ten in catches (35), receiving yards (499) and tied in the touchdown category (four).

"He's an amazing guy off the field (and) he's an amazing player on the field," Brewster said. "Each and every week, he goes out and plays very well. We know the opponent is obviously game planning to try and slow him down and he continues to the things great players do each and every week. I wouldn't trade him for any wide receiver in America."

While the Gophers (3-1, 1-0) have found some zip in their running game, the Badgers, especially Brown, have been confident in their ability to run the ball well before the south Florida-native played in his first axe, a game in which he rushed for a career-best 250 yards and two touchdowns.

"I just remember that day that I had a lot of confidence," Brown recalled of the 2007 game. "I felt like I could handle the job and be good of doing what was asked of me."

That confidence hasn't wavered for Brown in three-plus years. Despite playing third fiddle last season and having fumbled in each of his last two games, Brown has had no qualms about the play of the running game, especially since the Badgers' two-headed attack has led the offense to average 36 points in its first four games.

"Definitely," Brown said. "If you don't have that confidence, you're not going to do what you are supposed to. Camp, these first four games, my confidence has been increasing every day. We have a good two-back system when one of us isn't on, the other one should be. That's the beauty of our system and it's fun to share the backfield with him."

Comparing the rivalry in the Midwest to the Florida State-Miami war he grew up watching as a kid, Brown says he and his teammates all share the same common goal – after UW has been so dominant in this series, the 2009 group doesn't want to be the group known for losing the axe.

"You don't want to have the other team take it from you and we don't want to be the team that loses it," Brown said. "The whole team will be known for losing it. We won't have the luxury of seeing it at practice, in the dining hall, on the plane and it gives us the concept of how important it is. If we do what we do and don't kill ourselves, we'll be fine."

Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) vs. Minnesota (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten)

Date/Time - Saturday, October 3 at 11:02 a.m. CT

Stadium – TCF Bank Stadium (capacity: 50,805/ FieldTurf)

Television - ESPN (Dave Pasch, Bob Griese and Chris Spielman)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas)

Series – Minnesota leads 59-51-8 (38-22-2 in Minneapolis)

Last Meeting - Wisconsin won, 35-32, on Nov. 15, 2008 in Madison

UW Notes:

Wisconsin is seventh in the conference in scoring defense (23.8 ppg) and eighth in total defense (371.8 ypg), but they're tied with Iowa for the lead in takeaways with 12.

Under redshirt junior Scott Tolzien, who leads the Big Ten in pass efficiency, the Badgers rank second in the league in points (36.0) and yards (428.0) per game.

The Badgers boast 791 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground to go with 921 yards and 8 TDs through the air. Wide receivers own 35 of the team's 70 receptions, while tight ends have 30 catches and running back Zach Brown has five.

The last three times the Badgers opened the season with four straight wins they won nine, 10 and nine games, respectively (2004, 2005 and 2007).

The Badgers posted a plus-3 turnover margin in a game for the second time this season, and now own a plus-5 turnover margin on the year. Their 1.25 turnover margin leads the Big Ten and is tied for 13th in the country.

Wisconsin has not allowed a sack in three of its four games this season. UW is tied for the NCAA lead, having allowed just two sacks all season.

For the first time this season, the Badgers won the time-of-possession battle, holding the ball for 37:29 compared to 22:31 for MSU. That was the biggest differential in UW's favor since the Badgers held the ball for 38:15 in a 37-21 win over Michigan on Nov. 10, 2007.

Minnesota Notes:

Minnesota hasn't started started 2-0 in Big Ten play since 2004.

Through the first four games of the 2009 season, Minnesota's net punting average (punt yardage-minus return yards/touchbacks) ranks No. 14 in the nation. The Gophers' net punting average is 40.25 yards per punt. The Gophers have punted 20 times with three punts of 50-plus yards and six downed inside the 20-yard line. Opponents are averaging just 3.6 yards per return against the Minnesota punt coverage team.

The Gophers' 166 yards rushing vs. Northwestern were also their most since going for 206 vs. Florida Atlantic in 2008.

The Gophers are tied for No. 23 in the nation at 93 percent success in the red zone. Twelve teams are still flawless in the red zone this season, including this week's opponent. Wisconsin is 16-of-16 with 14 TDs and two field goals when they get inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

Gopher quarterback Adam Weber continues to re-write the Minnesota record book. In Week 2, he set the Minnesota record for career completions (his total is now 588). Two weeks ago, he set the Gopher career record for passing attempts (his total is now 988).

Prediction

"I try not to get too excited with the highs or get too down with lows, just try to be even keel and handle everything that comes my way."

That's what Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien told me when I rattled off some of his stats, which have grown more impressive each and every week. For example, Tolzien is 24-of-33 for 274 yards and three touchdowns on third down. That translates to a pass efficiency rating of 172.5.

He is even better on third and less than 10 yards, going 19-of-22 for 230 yards and three scores (pass efficiency rating of 219.2) and has converted 17 of those 22 attempts into first downs or touchdowns (77.3 percent).

Tolzien and the Wisconsin running game are going to get their yards, it's the Wisconsin secondary that's a bit troublesome. The Badgers have improved each week from the poor defensive performance against Fresno State, but this is a different animal. The Weber-Decker combination is the best the Badgers will probably see this year in terms of a multi-dimensional quarterback and a standout wide receiver.

J.J. Watt said some of that pressure leans on his group, and rightfully so. The Wisconsin defensive line has generated only four sacks in four games and senior O'Brien Schofield lays claim to two-and-a-half sacks. UW needs more pressure on Weber from more than one source.

Minnesota is a three-point favorite heading into Saturday, despite Wisconsin being perhaps the better overall team. The winning team has scored at least 35 points in each of the last eight games. Expect to make it nine, as this game has shootout written all over it.

I wrestled over this pick all week. I hope I am wrong, but I think the Gophers will have a few more bullets left in their gun.

Minnesota 36, Wisconsin 31

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 4-0

Against the Spread: 4-0


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