Nov. 19, 2013
BY RYAN EVANS
UW Athletic Communications
MADISON, Wis. -- With Wisconsin and Minnesota set to square off for the 123rd time, the 16th-ranked Badgers are preparing for what is shaping up to be one of the most meaningful matchups with the Gophers in recent memory.
Wisconsin is seeking to retain control of Paul Bunyan's Axe for the 10th-straight season and win their fifth-straight game in Minneapolis. They'll be facing a confident Gophers team in the midst of a program-revitalizing season. Minnesota is riding a four-game Big Ten win streak, its longest since 1973, and has reached the eight-win mark for the first time since 2003, coincidentally the last time the Gophers won an Axe game.
The Badgers and Gophers are also both ranked heading into the matchup for the first time since 2005. With Wisconsin trying to move up the BCS rankings in hopes of earning a BCS at-large bid, Saturday's game offers an opportunity for the Badgers.
"There's two good teams playing and you have yourself in a position to be able to play in a big game," UW head coach Gary Andersen said. "And on top of it, you put a rivalry in it. This is what college football is all about."
Saturday will be Andersen's first exposure to the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, which dates back to 1890. The two teams have met every year since then, with the exception of 1906, making it the most played rivalry in the FBS. For Andersen, it didn't take long after he was hired to understand the importance of this rivalry.
"The first day I was here Coach (Barry) Alvarez walked me through and I saw the Axe sitting in the trophy case," he said. "It doesn't take too long to realize how important it is."
"As we all know in rivalries like this, it's a one-game championship," Andersen added. "It's three hours and whatever minutes it takes to get it done."
Andersen will continue the tradition of having a staff member make a speech about the history of the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry to the team. This year that responsibility will fall on former assistant coach and current Director of Player Personnel and External Relations Henry Mason.
"We'll do a lot of things during the week to make sure the young kids can wrap their arms around it and understand what this rivalry is all about," Andersen said.
With temperatures forecast to be in the low 20s at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, the game should have the feeling of a throwback Big Ten battle between a pair of teams that want to grind out a win on the ground. Both teams rank in the top 20 nationally in rushing, with the Gophers 20th (218.5 yards per game) and the Badgers sixth (307.9).
"They keep plowing through games and battling through there," Andersen said of Minnesota's offense. "They want to run the ball and be productive in the run game ... it's been effective for them."
EXPLOSIVE OFFENSE BIG FOR BADGERS
With first-year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig at the helm, the Badgers' offense is on pace for a record-breaking season. In 10 games, Wisconsin has averaged 505.8 yards of total offense, which is well ahead of the school record of 469.9 yards per game set in 2011.
"I don't know if you could ever guess in the first year you'd be that explosive," Andersen said.
Wisconsin leads the Big Ten and ranks fifth nationally, averaging 7.36 yards per play. UW has tallied 15 offensive plays of 50-plus yards, which ranks No. 2 in the nation; 11 plays of 60-plus yards, which ranks No. 2; and are tied for the national lead in plays of 70-plus yards (6) and 80-plus yards (3).
"It's been great to see those big plays continue to take place," Andersen said. "We do have some kids with great speed that can make you miss."
Contributing to the Badgers' explosiveness is their pair of dynamic running backs, James White and Melvin Gordon. Wisconsin is one of only two teams in the country that has two players averaging 100 yards per game (Gordon, 130.6; White, 115.6).
Gordon leads the nation in yards per attempt (8.4) and runs of 60-plus (4), 70-plus (3) and 80-plus (1) yards, while White showcased his big-play ability with a school-record 93-yard touchdown run last week against Indiana. White's career average of 6.3 yards per attempt also leads all active FBS running backs.
Andersen said that explosiveness will be one of the determining factors in whether or not the Badgers secure the Axe for the 10th-straight season.
"We've been very successful on offense in those games where we've been explosive," he said. "We've played very well on offense. I think that will be a key."