Run O vs Run D: A twelve-year trend against Minnesota is in jeopardy for Wisconsin
If Paul Bunyan every played football, you can bet that he would’ve played in the B1G.
That big, muscular frame would be a perfect fit in a conference that depends so heavily on the running blocking schemes of its offensive line. You could probably even argue that, because of the success Wisconsin has had running the football over the past two decades, they’ve had some Bunyan-like guys working in the trenches for quite some time.
Maybe that’s why Madison has become the home city to Bunyan’s Axe, which has been a staple of the city since George W. Bush’s first term in the White House. Because for 12 straight years, Wisconsin has pummeled rival Minnesota.
How have the Badgers had so much success?
The easy answer is that Wisconsin has just been better during that stretch. The Badgers have reached a bowl game in all 12 years, averaging 9.8 wins during that window and have claimed three B1G titles. Not once has Minnesota ended with a better record than its arch-rival in that time.
The better team has won each of the last 12 years. While that’s the inarguable truth, it’s still somewhat remarkable that Wisconsin hasn’t slipped up a single time during that period. There have been a few close calls along the way – four games decided by seven points or less – but Minnesota has failed to pull off the upset.
So what’s the real reason for Wisconsin’s prolonged success in the FBS’s most played rivalry?
A punishing rushing attack engineered by a slew of overpowering running backs. For over a decade now, the Gophers haven’t had much of an answer for Wisconsin’s potent ground game.
Wisconsin continually trots out some of the nation’s top ball-carriers. Backs like P.J. Hill, John Clay, James White and Melvin Gordon made a career out of embarrassing defenses on a weekly basis. Minnesota hasn’t been immune to that abuse.
The Badgers have shredded Minnesota’s defense for 200 or more rushing yards in nine of the 12-straight meetings, including six of the last seven. The best showing came in 2012 when White rushed for 175 and Montee Ball added 166 yards. The backfield combination finished with five total TDs as Wisconsin coasted to a 38-13 win in Madison.
But it’s not been just the Heisman candidate backs that have torched Minnesota’s defense over the past 12 seasons. Every year since 2003, Wisconsin has had at least one rusher eclipse the 100-yard mark in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe:
|WISCONSIN RBs (2004-2015)
On all but two occasions – Calhoun in 2005 and Gordon in 2014 – those backs rushed over their season average, most by 30 yards or more. It’s easy to see how the Gophers have lost each of the last six encounters by double-figures and have a 17.5 average margin of defeat.
Minnesota faces another explosive ball-carrier again this season.
Corey Clement is the B1G’s second-best running back statistically, trailing only Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. The senior has rushed for 1,040 yards and 11 TDs in 10 games this season, including a 164-yard performance against No. 2 Ohio State.
History would tell us that Clement is going to obliterate his 104 yards per game average and singe the defense for one of his best outings of the year.
That may not be the case, though. Because Minnesota has a little history on its side heading into this year’s clash.
Odds are you probably don’t remember much about the last time the Gophers kept Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Minneapolis. After all, that was 13 years ago. But what Minnesota has done defensively this year almost mirrors the type of success it had in that 2003 season and snagged a 37-34 win over the Badgers.
Minnesota is in the midst of its best season defending the run since 2003. Through 12 weeks, the defense is allowing just 116.6 yards per game on the ground has held three of its last four opponents – Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern – under the 100-yard mark.
Here’s how this year’s numbers compare to Minnesota’s 10-win season all those years ago:
|MINNESOTA DEFENSIVE STATS
|2003 (13 games)
|2016 (through 11 games)
|Rush yards allowed (per game)
|Points allowed (per game)
|Total yards allowed (per game)
|10-3 (5-3 B1G)
|8-3 (5-3 B1G)
|W – 37-34
There’s something else worth noting, too. The last time the Badgers didn’t have a running back eclipse the 100-yard mark against Minnesota?
Wisconsin had to do without leading rusher Anthony Davis and were limited to just 119 yards on the ground. Booker Stanley led the way with 68 yards.
If Wisconsin fans weren’t worried about Saturday’s game, they might be feeling a little uncomfortable after checking those stats. And after one of its best performances of the season last week against Northwestern, it’s hard to argue that this will be the best Minnesota defense the Badgers have seen in quite some time.
Certainly Minnesota’s run defense isn’t going to be the only factor in this contest. Quarterback Mitch Leidner is going to have to play mistake-free for 60 minutes and the Gophers are going to need ample production from Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks out of the backfield. If the offense can’t move the football against Wisconsin’s stellar defense, it’s going to be hard to snap that losing streak regardless of how many yards the Badgers pile up.
Camp Randall Stadium is the host site for the season finale, another added bonus for the Badgers. Minnesota hasn’t won in Madison since 1994.
But Wisconsin is going to get Minnesota’s best shot. Even though the Gophers came close to pulling the upset in 2014, this team seems better suited to handle the pressure than two years ago.
Paul Bunyan’s Axe could finally head back to the proclaimed home state of its owner.
Minnesota is going to have to chop down Wisconsin’s running game first, though. Otherwise, the Axe is going to stay in Madison for a 13th-straight year.