Gophers eager to bring home Bunyan's Axe
MINNEAPOLIS — After a 4-0 start to the 2012 season the University of Minnesota football team has now lost two straight games since beginning Big Ten play. Last weekend's loss to Northwestern dropped the Gophers to 4-2. Head coach Jerry Kill's team now has another tough test as it travels to take on rival Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. Here are five things to watch as Minnesota looks to get back on track after its second straight loss.
1. Can this rivalry finally resemble a rivalry again?
It's been eight years since Minnesota beat Wisconsin in their annual rivalry game. The winner of the game takes home Paul Bunyan's Axe, a six-foot long wooden axe with the scores from each game of the rivalry written on the handle.
None of the current Gophers have ever had the opportunity to swing the axe, and it's been a few years since Minnesota came close to beating the Badgers. The last close game was in 2009, when Wisconsin won narrowly, 31-29, at TCF Bank Stadium. In 2008, the Gophers nearly stole one in Madison before falling 35-32.
"I think it loses its spark when you don't have both teams winning," Gophers wide receiver A.J. Barker said of the rivalry. "That's on us. We've got to be competitive out here. We've got to put up a fight, because they've been dominating us as of late. That's just the reality."
2. How will the Gophers' defense slow down Montee Ball?
Wisconsin's senior running back was a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, and has regained his form in 2012 after a slow start to the year. He gained a career-high 247 yards last weekend against Purdue and is now fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (116.6).
Minnesota, meanwhile, has struggled against the run in two Big Ten games, giving up 177 yards to Iowa running back Mark Weisman and 182 yards to Northwestern's Venric Mark. Wisconsin will likely run the ball early and often. It'll be up to the Gophers defense to stop Ball and Co.
"Wisconsin's known for running the ball, and these last two weeks we haven't done a great job of stopping it," said Gophers safety Brock Vereen. "The game plan will be a good one, I'm sure. As always, (defensive coordinator Tracy) Claeys will put us in position to make the play."
3. Will the Gophers' injuries be a factor?
Six games into a college football season, it's expected that a team will have its share of injuries. Minnesota is no exception. But the injury report leading up to this Saturday's game seemed to read longer than normal.
Kill said on Tuesday that left tackle Ed Olson likely won't play with a right ankle injury. Olson was wearing a boot on the foot Wednesday. Additionally, sophomore wide receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts, who is tied for second on the team with 11 catches, likely won't play either with an undisclosed injury, according to Kill. Wide receiver Marcus Jones is a "question mark," Kill said Tuesday, meaning Minnesota's depth at wide receiver could be very thin on Saturday. Safety Derrick Wells is dealing with a laceration on his knee, but might be able to play against Wisconsin.
And of course, there's the question of quarterback MarQueis Gray's health. As of Thursday, it didn't sound as if Gray would play much, if any, at quarterback. But the Gophers may use him at times as a wide receiver in order to get him on the field. Gray missed two games with a high ankle sprain and reinjured his ankle last Saturday against Northwestern.
"We just didn't have a lot of good continuity, but as I tell our coaches all the time, those are excuses," Kill said of injuries to the offense. "You know, you gotta find a way to get it done. So we gotta have those players that step in, they gotta step in and get it done."
4. How will the young Gophers squad handle its second hostile environment of the season?
Kill often references the youth and inexperience of his team. After all, Minnesota has just 14 seniors on the roster. Many of the current Gophers had never played in Iowa City before Minnesota traveled to take on the Hawkeyes late last month. In that hostile environment at Kinnick Stadium, the Gophers struggled en route to a 31-13 loss.
Now, Minnesota travels to another stadium often viewed as one of the tougher venues for visiting teams. Camp Randall seats over 80,000 fans and can certainly become boisterous. Between the third and fourth quarters, House of Pain's "Jump Around" blares over the stadium's loudspeakers, eliciting fans — and players — of both teams to, well, jump around.
"As a college football player, you kind of live for that stuff," said Gophers defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite. "You want to go into those hostile environments and play."
But the fact remains that the Gophers haven't won on the road in the Big Ten since beating Illinois late in the 2010 season. The environment at Camp Randle won't make the latest road test an easy one, but the young Gophers players will have their experience at Iowa to draw from.
"We talked about it. We said, ‘OK, we've got that one out of the way. You were all new to that one, but from here on out, it doesn't get any tougher than playing at Kinnick Stadium,'" said Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. "You go to Camp Randall or you go down to Lincoln, so what at this point. That's kind of the way we're approaching it. We think the kids will feel that way as well."
5. Can Max Shortell put together a better road performance?
Shortell will almost certainly get the start at quarterback Saturday in place of the injured Gray. For the sophomore Shortell, it will be his second Big Ten road start of the year. He was under center for Minnesota's 31-13 loss at Iowa in Week 5. Last year, Shortell filled in for Gray during the Gophers' game at Michigan, a 58-0 blowout win by the Wolverines.
Last Saturday against Northwestern was perhaps Shortell's worst game as a starter in his young career. He was just 9-for-19 for 103 yards and had several overthrown passes at crucial times late in the game.
Wisconsin has allowed 209.1 passing yards per game, which is almost identical to what the Gophers' passing game has gained per game (209.2). Minnesota will need Shortell to make some plays with his arm if the Gophers can't get anything going against Wisconsin's tough rushing defense (116.6 yards per game). To help Shortell in the passing game, receivers besides Barker will have to step up. One option is freshman Andre McDonald, who had his best game of the year last week by catching four passes for 33 yards.
Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.