Wisconsin Football: Badgers Keys to Keep the Axe

Keys to Victory for the Badgers? Much of the Same Standard Wisconsin Football

We are just a few long hours away from the end the regular season for Wisconsin Football. While the thought of it stings, the positive is that we still have a lot of important football to play. It seemed like just a few short weeks ago the Badgers were preparing for the trip to Historic Lambeau Field, and now we are at Axe Week. Its the longest standing rivalry in any power five conference, and one of the most highly anticipated games of each and every season due to the history between the border sharing schools. Its a series that has split virtually down the middle, as Minnesota has won 59 while the Badgers have won 58. Whatever side you are on, you know the impact this game can have. It keeps you up at night either in anticipation of winning the Axe, or fear of losing it to a bitter rival. Rivalry week is truly something special and cherishable for all football fans, as no matter the records you will always get a quality game based on the tradition that each game holds. For Wisconsin, the rivalry has been one sided of late, as the Badgers have held the Axe for twelve straight seasons. With the Axe, and postseason implications on the line, what do the Badgers need to do to keep the Axe in its rightful home?

Nov 29, 2014; Madison, WI, USA; The Wisconsin Badgers line up for a play during the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin won 34-24. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Control the Pass Rush 

Wisconsin and Michigan have been the most dominate defenses in the Big Ten, but Minnesota has been a very quiet and underrated number three. Wisconsin Football is all about running the ball, keeping possession, and maintaining drives. While that is always the main key, sometimes you face a defense that can shut that down. Minnesota has that defense intact. The Gophers front will be best Wisconsin has faced since Michigan, and yes I know we have played Ohio State, Nebraska, and Iowa during that stretch. Minnesota’s run defense ranks third in the conference, and has flown under the radar most of the season. While I still believe Wisconsin has the advantaged based on the way they’ve run the ball since Ohio State, but this will be there biggest challenge of late. Its likely that Wisconsin will be forced to throw in some big spots, which means Minnesota will bring the pressure. The Gophers are coming off of a season high seven sacks against Northwestern, five of the sacks coming on third down. The Gophers have implemented a new 2-4-5 defensive scheme that makes blitzes look confusing for opposing quarterbacks. If young Hornibrook is put in 3rd and long against those schemes, it will be important for him and the offensive line to pick up the blitzes and keep drives alive. If they are unable to do that, the offense could really struggle against the Gophers if they cannot play the possession game they are accustomed to.

Dec 30, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; USC Trojans tight end Tyler Petite (82) is defended by Wisconsin Badgers defensive end Chikwe Obasih (34) and defensive lineman Olive Sagapolu (65) during the second quarter in the 2015 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 30, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; USC Trojans tight end Tyler Petite (82) is defended by Wisconsin Badgers defensive end Chikwe Obasih (34) and defensive lineman Olive Sagapolu (65) during the second quarter in the 2015 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Stuff the Run, the Standard of Wisconsin Defense

All season we have seen Wisconsin Football dominate on the defensive side of the football. They’ve faced top rushing offense like LSU, Michigan, and Ohio State and held their own as usual. Its the backbone of their success, and much of the same will have to happen on Saturday to keep the Axe in Madison. Advantage, Badgers. However, it won’t be easy as its been in weeks past. Wisconsin will face off against the Big Ten’s leading touchdown scorer in running back Rodney Smith. Smith is a true all purpose back, as he is vital in Minnesota’s offense and special teams, and ranks third in all purpose yards behind Barkley of Penn State and Samuel of Ohio State. One could argue Smith is the toughest back the Badgers defense has seen since Leonard Fournette of LSU, so the defense must be prepared to stuff the run. One vital piece of stuff the run may be back on the field for the first time since LSU as Nose Tackle Olive Sagapolu has been upgraded to questionable after missing a big chunk of games. If he is able to play, it would be the healthiest Wisconsin’s defense has been since losing Jack Cichy, and would tighten up an already great run defense.

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Win the Turnover Battle

With both offenses being power run first offenses, its safe to say that offensive opportunities will be limited to say the least. That, in combo with the fact that its a rivalry game that’s already be bound to be close, turnovers could be the deciding factor in this ball game. Wisconsin is the better team, and the favorite in this game so staying on the right side of the turnover margin will be important. The last thing you want to do against a rival is give them extra opportunities and added momentum. By controlling the ball and playing the way Wisconsin Football plays, you can take that momentum away from them right away. On the defensive side, you can also do that by winning the turnover margin. Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner has had an up and down career, but he’s led Minnesota to some much better seasons since he took over the helm. Despite that, Leidner has a career that has been turnover riddled, which has made him throw the ball less and less and take fewer chances this season.  If you can force Leidner to make some mistakes, it virtually makes Minnesota’s offense one sided. Any additional chances you can get, can provide a lot of good to your offense. If the Badgers can win the turnover battle, it should allow them to control the ball and keep the Axe in its rightful home.

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