Paul Bunyan’s Axe stood in all its glory at the edge of the field at the Dave McClain Athletic Facility Wednesday night. As the Wisconsin players ran off at the conclusion of practice, each tapped the red face of the axe, an homage to the importance of Saturday’s rivalry and a visual reminder of what is at stake.
In the 122nd installation of the oldest rivalry in college football, the Badgers (5-2, 2-1) look to win their ninth in a row over the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2, 0-2) Saturday at Camp Randall.
With a permeable border not only with student population at the University of Wisconsin but athletically as well, many Badgers have some form of link to the state with which Wisconsin shares reciprocity.
UW’s defensive tackle Beau Allen is one of them.
The native of Minnetonka, Minn., grew up watching the rivalry. His allegiance, however, did not belong to his home state. Allen’s grandfather, Fred T. Westphal, was a six-time All-American for the UW swimming team from 1956-59 and is a charter member of the Wisconsin Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame.
“I actually kind of grew up rooting for the Badgers,” Allen said. “My mom’s side of the family is actually from Janesville. But a lot of my dad’s family went to the U of M. I’ve got a lot of friends and family that go there still, so I guess there’s a lot of ties pulling me both ways.”
Allen, who has been a standout member for an excelling Wisconsin run defense, will be an important part in containing a much-improved Minnesota offense. The Badgers come into Saturday with the conference’s third-best running defense, giving up an average of only 116.6 yards per game. The Gophers currently sit in the middle of the conference in rushing offense at 165.8 yards per game, but numbers don’t do justice to the danger of the Minnesota ground game.
Hampered by injury and seen in a walking boot at the beginning of the week, Gopher quarterback MarQueis Gray is questionable with a high ankle sprain, an injury the standout player reinjured in Minnesota’s 21-13 loss to Northwestern. Despite being less than 100 percent, Gray still served as a dynamic playmaker for the Gophers, completing seven of his 11 passes for 66 yards, catching a pass for 16 yards and running the ball nine times for 86 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown scamper.
While Gray’s status and role Saturday remain unclear, Wisconsin has been preparing for any situation.
“We’re going to prepare as if he’s playing; I’m sure he’ll play,” senior linebacker Mike Taylor said. “We faced him last year, we know what he can do. He’s a good runner, he’s a good thrower so we’ll have to prepare for both.”
“I know he obviously aggravated an injury Saturday, but when Gray gets going downhill now, he’s a load,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “He’s 250 pounds of lean, mean fighting machine coming at you.”
The Gophers will likey start the 6-foot-6 sophomore Max Shortell for the fourth straight week. Shortell, a more traditional pocket passer, has completed 60 of his 105 pass attempts for 791 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. Shortell will look to test the Badger secondary with A.J. Barker. The redshirt junior wideout is enjoying a breakout season in 2012, already amassing 406 yards and four touchdowns.
But Minnesota’s defense is where the real question lies. In the loss to Northwestern, the Gophers allowed the Wildcats’ Venric Mark to run for 182 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
Coming off a career-best 247 yards on the ground against Purdue that earned him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week and Maxwell Award Player of the Week, Wisconsin star tailback Montee Ball is quite the step up talent-wise from Mark. Playing a re-energized brand of football against the Boilermakers Saturday in a game where he physically shook off several defenders on any given play, Ball gained 194 of his 247 yards after initial contact.
For Ball, a preseason Heisman favorite saw his hopes wiped away after the first four games of the season. But, after seven games in 2012, Ball’s total rushing yards (847) are higher than they were at this point in 2011 (768), giving the running back plenty of reason to believe he can get his name back in the race.
“Man, hopefully I do; I’m not going to sit here and say no,” Ball said about getting his name back in the Heisman race. “I hope I get back in it. But, like I said, I’m looking forward to winning the rest of our games and making it back to [Indianapolis]. That’s my goal and I believe if we do that then I’ll have a great chance.”
A few records will be on the line in Madison come this year’s Border Battle, but the most intriguing is the fact a Badger win would tie the longest win streak in the series at nine games, set originally by the Gophers, who dominated the series from 1933-41.
“Rivalries you always, I don’t want to say treat differently, but you always have to look at them as you’re playing one of the better teams you’ll play all year,” Wisconsin left tackle Ryan Groy said. “You have to. You have to respect the rivalry because no matter how good or bad the team is they’re going to come out and give 100 percent every time, us included. We’re going to come out swinging just like they are and you really have to respect the rivalry and respect the tradition that has gone on throughout the years.”