Saturday’s Gophers-Badgers showdown in Madison presents your typical sidebars surrounding one of the longest college football rivalries in the nation.
There will be the annual fight for Paul Bunynan’s Axe.
There will be the battle between the fans from the two neighboring states.
And there will be a continuation of the bickering that’s made its way back and forth between the schools for 110 years.
But this season has something more to offer. It will feature the faceoff between Gophers wide receiver Ron Johnson and Badgers cornerback Jamar Fletcher.
“I’m ready for it,” said Johnson, who is second in the Big Ten in receiving yards a game at 97.3.
The junior has been the biggest offensive spark for Minnesota this season, hauling in 876 yards on 46 receptions and nine touchdowns.
But not until Saturday will Johnson go head-to-head with a defender with the skills Fletcher enjoys.
Last season as a sophomore, Fletcher was a first-team All-American. This year, he’s well on his way to repeating the honor.
Through six games — he missed three because of the infamous shoe scandal — Fletcher is tied for the conference lead with five interceptions.
“He’s the best in college football,” Gophers coach Glen Mason of Fletcher’s ability to play corner. “I have not seen anybody better.”
Neither has Johnson.
After handling Ohio State cornerback Nate Clements, who claimed to be better than Fletcher, Johnson is excited about going up against Wisconsin’s best.
“It shows they respect you,” Johnson said. “They recognize your talent.”
Although Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez knows Fletcher will be a busy man on Saturday, he’s welcoming the sight of seeing the two going head to head.
“You have one of the premier receivers in the conference, if not the country, going up against one of the premier defensive backs in the country,” Alvarez said. “Anytime you have that, you have a chance for a fun afternoon.”
As good as Fletcher has been this season, the same cannot be said about the entire Badgers team.
After winning consecutive Rose Bowls, and showing up in seemingly every publication’s top 25 list this past summer, Wisconsin struggled early in the Big Ten season.
The now unranked Badgers come into this game eighth in the conference with a record of 2-4 (5-4 overall).
Fans might take a look at the uncharacteristic record and think the reason for an off year in Madison revolves around the loss of last season’s Heisman Trophy winner, running back Ron Dayne.
But that’s not true.
Replacing Dayne in the Badgers backfield is junior tailback Michael Bennett.
Bennett doesn’t bring the size Dayne did — he’s listed in the media guide as just 5-foot-10, 204 pounds — but he does bring an even faster speed to Wisconsin.
At last season’s Big Ten outdoor track and field championships, Bennett finished first in the 100m and 200m. Flat out, he’s the fastest man in the conference.
Bennett’s speed has helped him more than fill Dayne’s spot in the lineup. He’s the fourth leading rusher in the nation, averaging 158.5 yards over eight games.
Bennett’s impact hasn’t surprised Mason one bit.
“Everybody’s been waiting for him,” Mason said. “He’s the Big Ten sprint champion who happens to be a running back.”
This is the third straight week the Gophers attempt to capture their sixth victory, making them eligible for a bowl.
Wisconsin is also in a similar situation. With 12 games on the schedule instead of 11, the Badgers need to win seven to become bowl eligible.
But Bowl games are a couple of months away. The Gophers and Badgers have to get past Saturday first.
Which likely means Johnson is going to have to get past Fletcher if the Gophers are going to leave Camp Randall Stadium with a win.
John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]