Minnesota 4-0 and a border battle to go

by David La

The red jerseys are coming and they’re taking the Dayne Train non-stop from Madison to Minneapolis with a seven-foot axe in tow.
When No. 20 Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1 in the Big Ten) arrives at the Metrodome Saturday, the No. 25 Gophers (4-0, 1-0) would like nothing better than to engineer an upset of the cross-state rivals.
It’s meeting No. 109 in the longest-running series in Division I-A football and “Paul Bunyan’s Axe” is on the line for the 51st time. And while the glorified hatchet might be a nice touch, it all comes down to the game itself. This game’s implications are as high as any.
“On Saturday against Wisconsin it will be a monumental challenge,” coach Glen Mason said.
Simple seems to be the operative word when discussing the blunt, straight-ahead style of the Wisconsin offense. Led by Heisman Trophy candidate Ron Dayne at running back and a jackhammer offensive line, the Badgers pose undeniable matchup problems for the Gophers defense.
“They’re huge,” defensive coordinator David Gibbs said. “They’re so much bigger than we are it isn’t even funny.”
The Wisconsin front-five weighs-in at an average of 301 pounds per blocker. Minnesota averages 272 pounds of angry Gophers among the four defensive linemen. According to Gibbs, the Badgers big men are not above mixing meanness with muscle, either.
“They don’t try to go out and score 50 points per game,” Gibbs said. “They would rather go out there and beat you up. They want to beat you up and make you submit.”
But the Gophers haven’t given up anything yet to the Big Red Machine. While Minnesota has been on the losing side of the last three games against Dayne and his road graders, they’ve made them work harder and harder for the yards gained.
As a freshman in 1996, Dayne ran 50 times for 297 yards, an average of 5.9 yards per carry. In the subsequent two seasons under Gibbs’ direction, the Gophers defense held Dayne’s yards per carry numbers to 4.6 in 1997 and 3.8 in 1998.
Something’s got to give, and according to Dayne’s assessment of the Badgers’ 42-17 comeback win at Ohio State last weekend, Minnesota knows what to expect.
“We just kept pounding on them and they finally gave,” Dayne said.
Dayne, who has more career carries (125) against Minnesota than any other team, will likely take more than his share of plunges into the defensive line. But it’s freshman quarterback Brooks Bollinger who provides the question mark to Dayne’s exclamation point.
“He’s a pretty good quarterback, Minnesota safety Tyrone Carter said. “He came out as a redshirt freshman against Ohio State and did pretty good running the option.”
The 6-foot-2, 192 pound Bollinger mixed 15 passes with 17 runs on his way to 245 yards of total offense.
“Him being mobile and able throw the ball causes a lot of threat to the defense,” Carter said.
While the country is getting acquainted with Bollinger, Gophers linebacker Sean Hoffman needs no such introduction. The two crossed paths during their prep days in North Dakota. Bollinger played at Grand Forks Central while Hoffman suited up for Fargo North.
“(Bollinger’s) not huge in stature, but he’s just a guy that’s going to go out there and make plays,” Hoffman said. “He’s got a never-quit kind of attitude.
“I hope I get a chance to run into him and get him on the ground, not just talk to him after the game.”
Talking to Bollinger during the game will likely require shouting. Only 300 obstructed-view seats remained Thursday night, meaning no matter who fans are supporting on the field, the needle on the decibel meter will be buried.
“It’s going to be loud in there for him,” Jon Michals said of Bollinger. “We’ve been putting pressure on the quarterback lately. I don’t know if he’ll be able to handle that or not.”
Whether or not the Gophers will be able to handle the first heavyweight team on the schedule also remains to be seen. But Gibbs is confident.
“It’s going to be a war,” Gibbs said. “It’s going to go down to the fourth quarter, and whoever turns the ball over is going to lose the game.”
ù Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, whose knee-replacement surgery was postponed this week due to an infection, will watch the game from the his room at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The room is equipped with a big-screen TV and Alvarez can reach his coaches on the sideline by phone.

ù Linebacker Curtese Poole (ankle) and wide receiver Antoine Henderson (shoulder) were held out of contact in Thursday’s practice. Henderson is reported to be doubtful for Saturday’s game.

ù The Wisconsin/Minnesota game will be televised on ESPN Regional. Kickoff is 11:10 a.m. Channel 4 will televise.
ù Gophers linebacker Sean Hoffman was named a finalist this week for the Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week award.

David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]