Wisconsin Badgers go for nine straight against rival Gophers

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Every time Wisconsin meets with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Badgers coach Bret Bielema makes sure to give all of his freshman a history lesson on FBS’s oldest rivalry.

Recent history has been kind to the Badgers who have won eight straight in the illustrious battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

After opposite starts to the season, the Badgers and Gophers are in pursuit of the same thing and that’s a bowl game. One slight different separates them though; the Badgers are looking for a berth to a significant bowl while the Gophers are merely trying to be bowl-eligible.

Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2, 0-2) Analysis: The Gophers had one of the hottest starts of the year while going 4-0, but really sputtered when conference play started by losing at Iowa and to Northwestern at home. In those two losses, the run defense completely imploded and gave up a combined 390 rushing yards. With the Badgers up next, that’s not a good area to be struggling in. Where Minnesota does excel is in the stopping the pass where they rank ninth in the nation, allowing just 162.50 yards per game. Safety Derek Walls has been one of their best contributors when it comes to the secondary.

Offensively, the Gophers are currently dealing with some problems. Against a Badgers team who’s been known to struggle against running quarterbacks, it would have been nice to have a healthy MarQueis Gray, but it’s looking like he won’t be able to go because of a high ankle  sprain. Enter sophomore Max Shortell who looked much of his inexperience against Iowa while throwing three interceptions. Minnesota’s best offensive weapon has been wide-out A.J. Barker who has 22 catches for 406 yards despite having to play with two quarterbacks who utilize different styles of play.

Wisconsin Badgers (5-2, 2-1) Analysis: In a rout of Purdue on the road, the Badgers posted a season-high 645 yards of total offense, the second most in school history. The guy leading the way was Montee Ball who salvaged any shot he still had at winning the Heisman with a career-high 247 yards. On the offensive line, Wisconsin made a tremendous jump. Even more so when you consider the fact that Ryan Groy had to move from left guard to left tackle because of an injury to Ricky Wagner. Wagner has a chance to come back for this game, but it’s an area to watch for the Badgers.

Just to make sure the offense doesn’t surpass the defense in the spotlight, Chris Borland and company set a season-high (or technically a season-low) of their own when they held Purdue to 252 yards of total offense. Along with Borland, linebacker Mike Taylor is all over the place while ranking 16th in the nation with 10.29 tackles per game. The Badgers have also improved quite a bit up front as they recorded a season-high five sacks in the win over Purdue.

Prediction: Wisconsin 34 Minnesota 13

I think this is going to be one of those grind-it-out Big Ten games where the winning team stretches the score out a bit towards the end of the game (i.e. Badgers win over Illinois). Minnesota picked the wrong time to start struggling with their rush defense as the Badgers rushing attack is scarier than it has been all season. Not only is Ball at the top of his game, teammate James White is running with a lot of purpose. If Minnesota had a healthy Gray, I would be a lot more confident in the Gophers keeping it close. But without him, I see the Badgers having a great shot at keeping the Axe for a ninth straight season.

TV Coverage: ESPNU at 11:00 AM CT with Tom Hart (play-by-play) and John Congemi (analyst).

Betting Lines: Wisconsin favored by 17.5 and over/under set at 45 points.

2012 Record straight up: 6-1

2012 Record against the spread: 2-4

2012 Record in over/under: 4-2

*No betting line for Badgers match-up with Northern Iowa

What are you most looking forward to in the annual battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe? Do you think the Badgers will win? Let me know by commenting below.

Nick Grays is a senior writer at the Sports Bank where he covers the Wisconsin Badgers and Green Bay Packers. He also enjoys to share Fantasy Advice and pretend to be a Golf expert from time-to-time. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here or visit his blog Nick Knows Best. If social media is not your thing, shoot him an email at grays@uwalumni.com.

Pictures:

Montee Ball with the Axe (uwire.com)

Max Shortell (foxsportsnorth.com)

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