Nov. 22, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen took his players to the movies before Wednesday’s practice. Or, rather, the movies came to them in the form of videos on the big screen in Camp Randall Stadium.
With a manager holding Paul Bunyan’s Axe in the north end zone, the players looked up at the scoreboard and watched a string of former Badgers deliver a short message on the Border Battle.
The speakers ranged from A to almost Z -- from A to W, Aaron to Watt, Aaron Henry to J.J. Watt. They each shared their own remembrances of the rivalry and exhorted them to keep the Axe.
“I’d say Jay Valai was the funniest, he told us to pillage Minnesota,” said UW linebacker Conor O’Neill. “And I don’t know how many guys recognized the red in the background with Aaron Henry.”
It would be Arkansas Razorbacks red, which is where Henry is serving a coaching internship. “It was just good to have all of those guys talk to us, especially guys we’ve played with,” O’Neill said.
Bill Nagy’s words resonated the most with Ryan Groy. A seventh-round NFL draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys, the former UW offensive lineman started four games as a rookie before fracturing his ankle.
Nagy has been on the rebound ever since because of injuries and has been released by both the Cowboys and the Detroit Lions. The Axe meant a lot to Nagy even though he was a native Ohioan.
“I’ve always appreciated what Bill has to say,” said Groy, a fifth-year senior from Middleton. “He’s definitely one of the guys I looked up to when I first came in here.
“He was one of the leaders of the younger guys, so to speak. We had Moff (John Moffitt) and Gabe (Gabe Carimi) but he was the one who looked out for us. He was our guy.”
What Nagy had to say about the Border Battle reinforced what Groy already knew to be true.
“You have to respect your opponent regardless of who you’re playing and you have to take pride in the game,” Groy said. “But it’s a big game … you’re playing for guys who came before you.
“There’s always a different intensity during the week, during Axe week.”
Groy knows that it will be super intense Saturday on the line of scrimmage and the Badgers will have their hands full with Minnesota’s freakish nose guard-slash-3-technique Ra’Shede Hageman.
All of the NFL draft pundits have the 6-foot-6, 311-pound Hageman going in the first round. “He’s a tremendous athlete, super explosive guy, and he plays low with his hands,” Groy said.
Hageman can disrupt an offense, not unlike Arizona State’s man-child Will Sutton. The Badgers kept Sutton in check during a disputed loss in the desert by holding him to only one tackle.
Hageman has 9 TFLs, 2 sacks, 7 pass breakups, 1 interception, 1 blocked PAT and 1 blocked field goal, which was returned for a touchdown by Martez Shabazz. His wingspan can pose some problems.
The Gophers originally projected Hageman as a tight end because of his rangy body and length. He was actively recruited to play college basketball coming out of Washburn High School in Minneapolis.
When offenses have doubled Hageman, it has opened up things for tackle Cameron Botticelli and defensive end Theiren Cockran, who’s also 6-6 and leads Minnesota in quarterback sacks.
Botticelli is a Cheesehead, a Milwaukee native, an alum of Marquette High School. Two of his former prep teammates are the Trotters, Michael and Marcus. The rivalry is fueled by such connections.
Groy is cognizant of the fact that even more fuel has been added to Minnesota’s fire because the Gophers are in the midst of a four-game Big Ten winning streak; the first such streak in 40 years.
“You can see it on tape; they’re definitely getting excited out there,” he said. “They put a lot of guys in the box, they’re sound fundamentally and they play hard; they’re definitely coached well.”
“Out there” is just what it implies -- this game will be staged outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium, a far cry from the old Metrodome and a far piece colder, too. “We’ll be mentally prepared,” Groy promised.
• • • •
If you’re wondering how long it took Conor O’Neill to get up to speed with the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry -- since he’s from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. -- the answer is not very long.
“It took my redshirt year to understand the importance of it,” he said. “I was here with Jaevery McFadden and Culmer St. Jean and I saw the amount of pride they had coming into rivalry week.”
Both former UW linebackers grew up in Florida. McFadden was from Riviera Beach and St. Jean was from Naples. Like O’Neill, it didn’t diminish the respect that they had for the Axe tradition.
“It’s a week that a lot of people take pride in … for 120-plus years,” said O’Neill. “Badgers from generations ago I’m sure are talking smack to all of their Minnesota friends.
“As senior, we have taken pride in ourselves to make sure that we’re not the class to lose the Axe. It must be weird to walk past a trophy case without a trophy in it. We haven’t had to deal with it.”
Wisconsin has won nine straight against Minnesota. Earlier this season, the Badgers went on the road and knocked off Iowa to retain the Heartland Trophy, a symbol of success in that rivalry.
“The upperclassmen realize that we’ve put in a lot of hours and we’ve played some tough games to keep our trophies where they are,” O’Neill said. “It takes a lot of work to keep those trophies here.”
O’Neill has always been intrigued by the Axe -- “Just to see the history on the handle, the wins and the losses” -- and he knows the Gophers have a two-game edge in the all-time series, 58-56-2.
“The older guys have been able to instill it on the younger guys, especially with how many seniors we have,” he said. “It’s just to make sure they know, ‘Once we’re gone, this is yours to protect.”’
A year ago, the Badgers held serve on their home turf with a 38-14 victory that marked the debut and first career start for Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson who grew up a UW fan.
Nelson lived in DeForest, Wis., until he was 12 and his family moved to Mankato, Minn. During his senior year, he was named Mr. Football in the state of Minnesota.
Along with completing 13 of 24 passes for 149 yards and two scores against the Badgers, he also led the Gophers in rushing with 16 carries for 67 yards.
“He’s definitely more confident (this year),” said O’Neill. “He’s got a lot of games under his belt now and he has taken control of their offense, running and passing. He’s coming into his own.”
So is tailback David Cobb, who was not even listed on Minnesota’s preseason depth chart. Cobb is now on the brink on reaching the 1,000-yard plateau. He has 942 rushing yards on 175 carries.
“He’s an aggressive running back, and he’s not afraid of contact,” O’Neill said. “He’s shifty and he makes moves but he’s not afraid to lower his shoulder. He’s a well-rounded back.”
The Gophers are far more conventional on offense than the spread attacks.
“I know Coach (Jerry) Kill has always appreciated our program,” said O’Neill, “and he likes running his offense a lot of the ways that we do. You see a lot of similarities.”
How will a Floridian, like O’Neill, adjust to a cold-weather game? “I’m going sleeveless,” he said.
• • • •
UW defensive lineman Pat Muldoon knew all about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. Understandable so, since he was raised in Mason, Ohio, which is about 85 miles from Columbus.
Wisconsin-Minnesota? Paul Bunyan’s Axe? The Border Battle? Not so much.
“I knew nothing about it really,” said Muldoon. “The first year here for me, I noticed during the Minnesota week that the old games were playing non-stop on TV (in the locker room).
“The Axe was always at practice and everyone was told that they had to touch it when they got on the field and got off the field. You could see from the guys how important it was.
“Throughout the years, it has kind of been instilled in me how important it is and I would say I have probably similar feelings (today) as most of them have towards that team (Minnesota).”
It was no secret that the Gophers tore out a page from the Wisconsin playbook in preparation for the Nebraska game and befuddled the Huskers secondary with their own version of the jet sweep.
“Facing it every day in practice, I think it has helped us prepare for it,” Muldoon said. “I know that we’ll have to be fundamentally sound in the backend.”
The running game has been an integral component in the success equation at Minnesota. Under coach Jerry Kill, the Gophers are 13-2 (6-0 this year) when they have sported a 100-yard rusher.
Both quarterbacks, Nelson and Mitch Leidner, have rushed for over 100; so have both tailbacks, Cobb and Rodrick Williams. The last time Minnesota had four different 100-yard rushers was 1967.
Wide receiver Donovan Jones has 12 rushes for 62 yards on the jet sweep.
“It’s pretty similar (to Wisconsin),” Muldoon said of Minnesota’s tempo and offensive concepts. “And it’s different from the past two weeks and what we’ve faced (with BYU and Indiana).
“I think it’s good for us (the D-line) because it’s not up-tempo, it’s not a spread. I know it’s nice to see a team that runs between the tackles a little bit more.”
Beyond the rivalry, there’s still a lot at stake for the Badgers, who are chasing a BCS bowl berth. “We know we have potentially big things at the end of the year,” Muldoon said, “if we take care of business.”
This is a business trip, first and foremost, he strongly intimated.
“That’s the great thing about our senior class, we don’t look that far ahead,” he said. “We take care of business every week. We focus on every game and we haven’t overlooked an opponent.”
What about the weather conditions Saturday, the freezing temperatures? “In high school, I played a state championship game in sleet and it was under 10 degrees,” Muldoon recalled.
Did he enjoy it? “I did not enjoy it,” he admitted. “But I enjoyed winning.”