Fiery rivalry losing no appeal as Minnesota heads to Madison

Gophers v Wisconsin Football

Steve Maturen

Gophers v Wisconsin Football

Talk may be cheap, but boy is it entertaining âÄî especially when itâÄôs talk between Minnesota and Wisconsin regarding the battle for Paul BunyanâÄôs Axe. Forget the game, the chatter provides fireworks enough. Like when Badgers sophomore offensive tackle Gabe Carimi tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that âÄúMinnesota is my most despised team.âÄù Or, how about the rumor floating around that Wisconsin will stash the Axe, which it currently possesses, behind the GophersâÄô bench. That way, the Badgers could deny Minnesota the rush of crossing the field to retrieve the trophy but storm the GophersâÄô sideline if they retain it . Now flashback a year to when Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema uttered this after his teamâÄôs 41-34 victory over Minnesota: âÄúYou want a rivalry? You got one.âÄù Gophers coaches and players have avoided fanning the flame of the already fiery rivalry with sound-bytes like that, but head coach Tim Brewster said after WednesdayâÄôs practice, âÄúYou can tell thereâÄôs a meaningful game going to be played on Saturday. ThereâÄôs something in the air.âÄù As if the oldest and one of the most bitter rivalries in the country wasnâÄôt enough, SaturdayâÄôs game, scheduled for 2:30 p.m. in Madison, has major implications for both Minnesota and Wisconsin. Instead of battling for the Big Ten championship as many believed they would before the season, the Badgers are floundering at 5-5 . A conference title may no longer be in the cards, but the Gophers can be sure Wisconsin would love nothing more than to become bowl eligible at Camp Randall while retaining the Axe for the fifth consecutive year. On the other hand, Minnesota (7-3 overall, 3-3 Big Ten) has known itâÄôs headed to a bowl for weeks, but after two straight losses and a pair of tough games remaining, the Gophers are running the risk of slipping to the Motor City Bowl (the Big TenâÄôs worst bowl) when not long ago people were considering the possibility of Minnesota appearing in one on New YearâÄôs Day. Stopping the skid wonâÄôt be easy. Brewster announced Tuesday that star wide receiver Eric Decker would be unavailable for SaturdayâÄôs game. The junior, a Biletnikoff Award finalist , suffered a high ankle sprain during the third quarter against Northwestern two weeks ago. âÄú[Eric] playing this week against Wisconsin would not be in his best interest,âÄù Brewster said. Decker tried to play last week against Michigan, but lasted just more than a quarter; the ankle was clearly bothering him. Without Decker, the GophersâÄô offense has seemed lost. Against the Wolverines, it gained a season low 188 yards and failed to find the end zone for the first time since being shut out by Ohio State on Oct. 28, 2006. Minnesota will be calling on a variety of receivers to try and fill the void left by Decker. True freshmen Brodrick Smith and Brandon Green and junior Ben Kuznia are listed on the depth chart as the starters at wide receiver , but Brewster said sophomore Ralph Spry, back from a three-game suspension, and true freshman DaâÄôJon McKnight would also see reps. âÄúThereâÄôs not one individual thatâÄôs going to replace Decker âĦ from a talent standpoint or from a schematic standpoint,âÄù Brewster said. But he repeated his adage of âÄúNext man up. His misfortune is somebody elseâÄôs opportunity.âÄù To see what the young receivers can do, the offensive line needs to give sophomore quarterback Adam Weber some time in the pocket. He was under siege all game against Michigan, and when he wasnâÄôt being sacked four times, he was looking immediately for who was going to hit him. The result was WeberâÄôs worst passing day of the season, 13-of-24 for only 105 yards. Of course, if Weber expects to have any time in the pocket, the Gophers will have to put together some semblance of a run game. TheyâÄôve scraped together only 83 and 68 yards on the ground in the last two weeks. For a team striving for balance, that doesnâÄôt get the job done. âÄúThe first runs, we got to try to come out, get 5 or 6 yards, just keep the chains moving,âÄù true freshman running back Deleon Eskridge said. âÄúJust to get something started and get a little confidence.âÄù