The battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe adds another chapter this week, as the Minnesota Golden Gophers pay a visit to the 20th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers.
This is the most-played rivalry in the history of the Football Bowl Subdivision, with Minnesota laying claim to a 59-52-8 advantage in the series. However, Wisconsin has won the last six meetings, and leads in the battle for the Axe by a 35-24-3 count.
Minnesota is hoping to snap a four-game losing streak, the most recent of which occurred last week in the Big Ten opener against Northwestern, 29-28. The team's previous three setbacks came against Northern Illinois, USC and South Dakota -- all at home. The Gophers' lone win came in the season opener at Middle Tennessee.
Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster has to be feeling the heat, and while this game represents a challenge for sure, next week's trip to Purdue could yield a victory. Following that bout, the Gophers welcome Penn State and Ohio State to Minneapolis before playing two of their final three games on the road.
Despite the mounting losses, Brewster is proud of the effort put forth by his team, "It's hard to find words right now. It's just gut-wrenching to lose that football game [today], with the effort that our kids put into it. We just didn't make the play to win the football game. I feel for our kids because they poured it out there and they didn't get the reward. That's really disappointing."
Wisconsin had been undefeated heading into its conference opener last week at Michigan State, but it was the Spartans who picked up the victory with a 34-24 decision.
The Badgers, who are 3-0 at home this season, are coached by Bret Bielema, who owns an impressive 42-15 record in his four-plus seasons at the helm and who is a perfect 4-0 in games against Minnesota. Despite the loss last week, Wisconsin can get back in the Big Ten title chase with a win here followed by a victory over second-ranked Ohio State next week, with both games being played in Madison.
DeLeon Eskridge ran for 119 yards and a TD, but it wasn't enough as the Golden Gophers were tripped up at home by the Northwestern Wildcats last weekend. It was the third career 100-rushing game for Eskridge. QB Adam Weber completed just 14 passes, amassing 194 yards with two TDs and an INT for Minnesota, which made good on just 3-of-11 third-down conversion attempts while allowing the Wildcats 8-of-11 success.
Eskridge is actually the team's second-leading rusher on the season, having gone for 240 yards and two TDs thus far. Duane Bennett has started all five games and has 400 yards and two scores to his credit, the team as a whole averaging 166 ypg on the ground. Weber is hitting just over 62 percent of his throws for 239.8 ypg with nine TDs and four picks. MarQueis Gray and Da'Jon McKnight are the club's top receivers, having pulled in 24 and 20 balls, respectively, with each reaching the end zone three times.
Three Gophers finished in double digits in tackles in last week's loss, led by Michael Carter and his 11 stops, nine of which were solo efforts. Both teams were credited with just one sack each, but UM came away with three turnovers. For the season, Minnesota is giving up 185.6 ypg on the ground and 221.2 ypg through the air. The opposition has scored 10 TDs via each mode, and the Gophers are led is tackles by Gary Tinsley with 32.
Wisconsin RB John Clay was held to 80 yards on 17 carries last week against Michigan State, snapping his streak of 10 straight games rushing for at least 100 yards. James White did his best to pick up the slack, running for 98 yards and two TDs. The Badgers finished with just 292 total yards, compared to 444 for the Spartans, who won the time of possession battle by nearly 13 minutes and converted half of their 18 third-down opportunities.
With Clay and his 581 yards and six TDs leading the way, the Badgers rank 13th in the nation in rushing offense (239 ypg) and 26th in scoring (36.4 ppg). QB Scott Tolzien is a 68.8 percent passer who averages 195.6 ypg with six TDs against only two INTs, and his favorite receiver is Lance Kendricks, who has 20 grabs for 316 yards and three scores.
J.J. Watts led the UW defensive stand against Michigan State with 10 tackles, and the team came up with three turnovers and two sacks on the day. Watts and Blake Sorensen currently pace the Badgers with 24 tackles apiece, while a total of 13 UW defenders have double-digit stops on the season.
Hoping his team responds favorably after last week's setback, coach Bielema reflected on that outing while also turning his attention to this week's opponent, "What we want to do is get better on a weekly basis. We didn't do the things we needed to do to win that football game, but my goal and aspiration for this group is to focus on one week at a time. And I think where we're at now will probably let us focus on that goal better than ever before because there is a setback, but the immediate result is you get a chance to play Minnesota in a rivalry game and move ourselves forward."
The Gophers are in a tough spot here, playing on the road against a team coming off its first loss of the season. Don't expect the Badgers to be all that hospitable in what should be a fight, but a win for the home team nonetheless.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17