Preview: (5) Wisconsin at Minnesota

THE BASICS

The teams: The No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers (11-0, 8-0) vs the Minnesota Gophers (5-6, 2-6)

The time: 2:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday

The place: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.

The TV coverage: ABC with Mark Jones and Rod Gilmore in the booth, and Quint Kessenich on the sideline.

The last time: Wisconsin scored 24 straight points in the second half to overcome a 10-point deficit and win 31-17 last November at Camp Randall Stadium.

The series: 59-59-8

The line: Wisconsin -17

The Badgers injury report:

QUESTIONABLE

S D’Cota Dixon (leg)
LB Chris Orr (leg)

OUT

Game:

TE Luke Benzschawel (leg)

Season:

WR Quintez Cephus (leg)
S Patrick Johnson (arm)
RB Taiwan Deal (leg)
LB Jack Cichy (knee)
LB Zack Baun (foot)
RB Sam Brodner (knee)
LB Mason Stokke (leg)

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1) Looking for perfection

Wisconsin is off to the best start in school history and with a win can have its first unbeaten conference season since 1912. Now sitting at No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the victory would also keep the Badgers in the race for one of four spots as they head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game against Ohio State next weekend. All of this coming knowing that a loss would make Minnesota’s season. No pressure.

2) For the ‘Axe’

Thirteen years. That’s how long it’s been since Minnesota players have touched Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the trophy that goes to the winning team in the oldest rivalry in college football. And Wisconsin has no intention of the streak — the longest for either team in the series — coming to an end on Saturday. They know what’s at stake for their season but also in the rivalry itself, as a win would give the Badgers the series lead for the first time ever.

3) Need a clean game

The only way Minnesota has a chance to beat Wisconsin is if the Badgers beat themselves with penalties and turnovers. The latter begins and ends with quarterback Alex Hornibrook. He’s thrown at least one interception in every conference game this year, including three against Iowa — the last trophy game Wisconsin played. Can the Badgers win even if he does turn it over? Sure. But they can be scary good when he’s on the mark and not forcing the issue.

4) The curious case of Demry Croft

Minnesota’s quarterback hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in more than a month, and the Gophers are just 1-3 with him as their starter during that period. But in the one game they did win — a 54-21 whipping of Nebraska — the sophomore put on a show. He threw for 105 yards and ran for another 183 yards and three touchdowns. It’s an outlier in an otherwise rough season, but Wisconsin can’t allow Croft to get loose. They need to force him to beat them from the pocket, something he has largely proven he can’t do.

5) P.J. Fleck vs Paul Chryst

The men that lead these two programs could not be more different. Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck is a never ending string of words and actions designed to get your attention and keep it. He’s a cliche machine with his “Row the Boat” mantra and a ball of energy that is constantly rolling. On the other sideline is Paul Chryst — almost the exact opposite. Both have been successful in their careers, though everyone is waiting to see if Fleck’s success at Western Michigan can be duplicated in Minnesota. Neither way is the right way, but it’s impossible to not notice the difference.

NUMBERS TO CONSIDER

Wisconsin is 16-1 in its last 17 trophy games (Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska).

Running back Jonathan Taylor needs 269 yards to break the single-season FBS rushing record for a freshman, which is currently held by Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson. He ran for 1,925 yards in 2004.

The Badgers are allowing just 246.4 yards per game, the No. 2 mark in the nation behind Alabama. While noting they still have at least three games to play, that total would be the fewest by a Wisconsin defense since 1958 (244.1).

PREDICTIONS

Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17 (11-0 on the season, 7-4 against the spread)
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 34 , Minnesota 14 (11-0 on the season, 7-4 against the spread)
Joe Miller’s prediction: Wisconsin 41, Minnesota 10 (11-0 on the season, 7-4 against the spread)

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck was a Wisconsin fan growing up

Wisconsin has beaten Minnesota 13 straight times in football, and the Badgers earned another victory of sorts when the first episode of ‘Being P.J. Fleck’ aired on ESPNU this week.

The show chronicles the life of new Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, and part of the first episode focused on his aspirations as a kid growing up in Sugar Grove, Ill. Those early life dreams included wanting to play basketball for the Badgers.

The episode even included a picture of a young Fleck decked out in a red Wisconsin shirt with the old Bucky Badger logo on the front.

pj-fleck-wisconsin-minnesota-wisconsin football-minnesota football

New Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck decked out in a Wisconsin shirt during his younger days. (Buckyville via ESPNU)

Minnesota largely downplays the importance of beating Wisconsin

There was a noticeable absence of buzz around Big Ten media days this week in Chicago. Whether it was due to the conference’s top players not being there, the lack of memorable one-liners or just media day fatigue on the part of the national media, the loud noises that came from SEC and ACC media days earlier this month were generally nowhere to be found.

And that extended to what had become a staple at the event in recent years — Minnesota players promising that they’d be parading around with Paul Bunyan’s Axe after beating Wisconsin that fall. It hasn’t happened, of course, as the Badgers have won 13 straight times, but the passion of the players each year always provided a guaranteed headline that would stoke the fires of the most-played rivalry in college football.

On Tuesday, though, there were no dramatic statements from the Gophers contingent when they spoke with reporters inside a ballroom at McCormick Place in downtown Chicago. They sidestepped nearly every question about rivalry games, including this year’s matchup with the Badgers on the final day of the regular season.

LISTEN: Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck says he took the Gophers job to win a Big Ten title

“Wisconsin is something we are not focused on right now,” defensive lineman Steven Richardson said. “We’ll focus on that down the line. We’re just as hungry for that as we are for the first game [against Buffalo].”

Running back Rodney Smith came the closest to admitting the importance of games like Wisconsin and Iowa, but the senior caught himself and laid out qualifiers while answering the question.

“Every game is a big game, but that’s definitely one the state expects us to win,” Smith said. “[We’ll] take it each game at a time, but that game specifically, we’re all looking forward to it.”

Those responses are a far cry from 2014 when defensive back Cedric Thompson talked openly about how badly he wanted the Axe back in the Twin Cities, and running back David Cobb spoke confidently about chopping down the Badgers goal posts when — not if — they won their end of the season matchup.

LISTEN: P.J. Fleck doesn’t deny being a self promoter, says every coach is.

But this is a different Minnesota outfit, and the outside message has changed. Though new coach P.J. Fleck is definitely an energetic, fast talker that feels like he’s always trying to sell you something, the former Western Michigan head man has clearly made it a priority to have his guys think about the process and not what will happen four months from now.

“I’ve never talked about winning. I’ve never talked about the number of wins. We’ve talked about building our culture the way that we build it,” Fleck said on Tuesday. “Same thing when we went from 1-11 [at Western Michigan] to 13-1. We didn’t talk about winning. We talked about every day, winning the day. Being better than we were yesterday.”

It seemed clear that the players brought to Chicago had adopted a similar mindset or had at least been coached well enough to stay on message. Any attempt to get them to open up on their desire about finally beating Wisconsin and getting the Axe back was met with answers that sounded like they came out of a textbook full of cliches.

“No,” linebacker Jonathan Celestin said when asked if they talked about the Badgers at all. “Right now we’re just focused on getting better day-by-day, trying to make sure we’re ready when camp comes, then ready for Buffalo and taking it one week at a time.”

LISTEN: P.J. Fleck was amazed at what UW TE Troy Fumagalli did to his team in the Cotton Bowl.

P.J. Fleck confirms he’s taken head coaching job at Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — P.J. Fleck confirmed Friday morning that he would be taking the head coaching job offered to him this week by Minnesota.

Previous story:

Despite an appearance by former LSU head coach Les Miles on Thursday, KSTP-TV’s Joe Schmit reports that Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck will instead be named the Gophers’ new head coach.

Fleck reportedly met with Minnesota’s Athletic Director Mark Coyle and school president Eric Kaler on Wednesday afternoon in Chicago.

The hiring process comes just days after Minnesota football coach Tracy Claeys was fired, despite posting a 13-7 record in his year-plus leading the program. He finished the 2016 campaign with a 9-4 record and a Holiday Bowl win over Washington State.

Because of contract details, Minnesota would have to pay Fleck somewhere in the range of $21 million over six years for an average salary of $3.5 million. Claeys was making $1.5 million annually.

Fleck led the Broncos to a 13-1 record and a Cotton Bowl appearance where they fell to Wisconsin 24-16.