MINNEAPOLIS — It’s arguably the biggest game for the University of Minnesota football program since the 1960s, and that’s no hyperbole. The Gophers and Wisconsin Badgers battle Saturday in Madison with not only Paul Bunyan’s Axe on the line, but also a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship at stake as well. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions about Saturday’s big game to this week’s mailbag.
Q: What needs to happen in order for the momentum and level of play to carry over and continue against UW next week? –Andrew Cross, Bloomington, Ind.
A: I think the confidence has continued to build for this team from week to week. Even after losing to Ohio State, there was no lack of confidence from Minnesota’s players. To keep that momentum going from Saturday’s win, I think it would be huge for the Gophers to get off to a good start. That’s something this team hasn’t done well this year. In the win against the Huskers, Minnesota fell behind 7-0 and then 21-7 at halftime before a second-half rally. Ohio State jumped out to a 14-0 lead before the Gophers tied it at 14. Even the Iowa Hawkeyes took an early lead before Minnesota scored 51 unanswered points. In fact, the Gophers have scored first in just two of their Big Ten games this year.
It seems like Minnesota has been tempting fate recently by falling behind early so often and having to come back. The Gophers are a perfect 5-0 when scoring first this season and just 3-3 when the opponent scores first. Meanwhile, the Badgers are 5-1 this year when scoring first. If Minnesota hopes to carry its high level of play from last weekend’s win into Saturday’s game, a fast start would be key. In a game with so much on the line, the Gophers don’t want to find themselves in an early deficit.
Q: Do the Gophers even have a chance if Cobb is out? –Colin, St. Cloud, Minn.
A: I believe they do, but it’s certainly a tougher task if David Cobb’s hamstring prevents him (or limits him) from playing. As of Tuesday, head coach Jerry Kill said Cobb is "highly questionable" to play, although Cobb took to Twitter earlier this week to say that he would be ready to go. Backup running back Donnell Kirkwood, one of two backs whose snaps could increase Saturday, also said he believes Cobb will suit up for Saturday’s game. If Cobb does play, I think the Gophers will be smart with him and not run him as often as they have throughout the season.
That means Kirkwood and fellow backup Roderick Williams — both of whom have been starters at one point in their careers — will potentially be called upon to pick up the slack. That was the case Saturday at Nebraska after Cobb was injured on a 17-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Williams later scored on a 19-yard run to bring Minnesota to within 24-21. Kirkwood added 33 yards on seven carries. And let’s not forget quarterback Mitch Leidner’s ability to run the ball. His 110 rushing yards led all players in the Nebraska game, as did his 22 carries. If Cobb doesn’t play, expect Leidner to run the ball a bit more. And he’ll have to make some plays with his arm, too, if Cobb isn’t in the backfield.
Q: What is the major key point that we need to do to win on Saturday? It seems like the D has been great all year and Mitch is finally starting to look like a actual all around QB. This game is more of a win than it was earlier in the year. –Adam, Eden Prairie, Minn.
A: The biggest key, in my mind, is winning the turnover battle. When Minnesota doesn’t commit a turnover in a game, it is 2-0 this year and 10-0 during Jerry Kill’s tenure. In games the Gophers have committed fewer turnovers than their opponent, they are 6-1 this season and 18-2 in the last four years under Kill. Winning that turnover battle will come down mainly to the two points you made. Mitch Leidner has thrown eight interceptions in nine games this year, including a few at costly times. He can’t have that happen Saturday. And Minnesota’s defense has been very opportunistic this year, forcing 27 total turnovers (second-most in the Big Ten). On the year, the Gophers have a +11 turnover margin, which trails only Ohio State among conference teams.
The Badgers, meanwhile, have had their issues with turnovers and have a turnover margin of minus-2. That includes 10 interceptions thrown, something the Gophers’ ball-hawking secondary has to be taking note of. If Leidner can limit — or eliminate — the turnovers and Minnesota’s defense can force one or two, the Gophers will put themselves in position to win.
Q: Thoughts on this silly new Axe "policy"? Gary Andersen conveniently forgets it was his players that were crowding the Gophers players while they were singing Hail Minnesota. –DJ, Edina, Minn.
A: I think it’s much ado about nothing, to be honest, and so did the Gophers players we talked to Tuesday. I understand where Andersen was coming from when he first said it Monday (although he later backtracked). There was the hubbub that ensued after last year’s game when the Badgers started chopping down the Gophers’ goalpost at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota’s players took exception to it because it happened as they were singing one of their school songs following the game.
With that said, I think the tradition should remain how it has been. The winning team runs to the Axe — whether it’s on their own sideline or their opponents’ — and grabs it and starts chopping down the goalpost. That’s the way it’s been as long as I can remember, and I don’t think it should change. Andersen did later say Monday that the Axe will be on the field late in the game after he originally said it would appear in the winning team’s locker room following the game. Let’s be honest. Fans want to see the Axe, too. It’s one of the best rivalry trophies in all of college football. Don’t mess with tradition, and let the winning team do what they want with the Axe.
Q: The Badgers losses this season have come at the hand of strong QB performances. Is Mitch Leidner capable of such a performance, or are Gopher fans over-rating their chances? –Dan, Madison West
A: Two-part question, so I’ll give two answers. First of all, I don’t believe the Gophers fans are overrating their chances at a win Saturday. In the last handful of years, this is the best chance I’ve felt Minnesota has had to come away with a victory against the rival Badgers. However, I say that not because of their quarterback play but because of the defense. This is a defensive group that is filled with confidence, and it should be given how they’ve played this year.
To answer the first part of your question, I’m not sure Leidner is the type of quarterback who can take over a game. If he is, we haven’t seen it yet. Leidner is certainly capable of making some big throws — we saw that last Saturday when he hit KJ Maye for a deep pass in the fourth quarter — but it’s highly unlikely that Minnesota will rely on him to do the heavy lifting on offense.
Wisconsin’s loss to LSU was certainly due in part to the play of Tigers quarterback Anthony Jennings, who threw for 239 yards despite completing just 9 of 21 passes. Of course, one of those was an 80-yard touchdown pass, which inflates the numbers a bit. In their loss to Northwestern, the Badgers surrendered 189 passing yards to Trevor Siemian on 15-of-29 passing. The numbers Siemian put up are surely numbers that Leidner could produce. But also key in that Northwestern loss for Wisconsin was the fact that the Badgers turned the ball over twice on a pair of interceptions. Neither Minnesota nor Wisconsin makes a ton of big plays through the air. Whichever team can take advantage in the passing game will have the upper hand Saturday.