Rivalry Weekend: Gophers, Bears Come To Wisconsin

Thursday night’s great Jets/Patriots game has put me in a fiery buffalo football-watching mood for this weekend. Although part of it could be that I’m just looking to delay putting up the Christmas tree for another weekend. (I know, it seems early to put up the tree, but between assembling the fake branches, putting up the lights, and hanging the ornaments, it’s a several-weekend job. If I don’t get started soon, Santa will have to put the presents under the television. Which might get confusing if he brings us a new 1080p HDTV, which is what I’m hoping for. Oh, and some socks.)

Anyway, here’s what you’ll be watching pigskin-wise this weekend:

Minnesota at Wisconsin, Saturday 2:30 PM, ABC. In order to have a true rivalry game, you need to have two competitive teams. And while some still insist on hyping border battle football games between America’s Dairyland and the Land of 1,000 Lakes, both the Packers and Badgers have been so dominant in recent years that much of the juice has been drained from these matchups.

But just as Sunday’s close loss to the Vikings goes a long way in re-igniting what had been a dormant Packer-Viking rivalry, a Gopher win Saturday at Camp Randall would add some sex appeal to the annual Paul Bunyan Axe game. And a couple of weeks ago, as Minnesota got off to a 7-1 start while the Badgers floundered, it seemed that Wisconsin’s four-game win streak against the Gophers would end this year.

But then the Gophers lost two straight home games, a heartbreaking last-second loss to Northwestern and a surprising 29-6 beatdown by Michigan. Meanwhile, the Badgers are coming off their most dominant performance of the season, last week’s 55-20 crushing of Indiana. And now it looks like the Gophers’ woes against the Badgers are likely to continue.

Minnesota had been winning this year thanks to an opportunistic defense and its passing game. But in the last couple of weeks, the Gophers have turned it over as much as they’ve created turnovers, and quarterback Adam Weber has been as good as John Oates without Daryl Hall with the loss of his roommate and favorite target, wide receiver Eric Decker, who leads the Big Ten with 74 receptions. (To compare, Wisconsin’s leading receiver, Garrett Graham, has 35 catches.) Decker suffered an ankle injury two weeks ago and won’t play against Wisconsin.

Minnesota hasn’t been able to turn to its running game to compensate for its ailing passing attack, as the Gophers are dead last in the Big Ten at running the ball. More importantly for Saturday’s matchup, their defense has been lousy at stopping the run lately, giving up 232 yards on the ground to Michigan and 220 rushing yards to Northwestern. Obviously neither the Wildcats or Wolverines have the ground game that the Badgers enjoy, as Wisconsin leads the league in running the ball and are coming off a game in which they rushed for a staggering 441 yards.

I look for Wisconsin to be able to play its game, which for anyone who has just moved here from Guam, is control the line of scrimmage, run the football, control time of possession, and force quarterback Adam Weber to make plays, which he has been unable to do without Decker. Wisconsin 27, Minnesota 13.

Chicago at Green Bay, Sunday, 12 noon, FOX. Despite the disappointing seasons of both, I have been much easier on the Packers than I’ve been on the Badgers. I found the preseason expectations of the Badgers ridiculous, and was ready to pounce when they were proven so. Also just due to the nature of college football, the Badgers were out of Big Ten contention so quickly, whereas for much of this season I felt that even given their struggles, the Packers still had to be considered the favorites to win the NFC North.

Now after two straight losses and five losses out of seven, I’m finally starting to have my doubts. The Packers have looked remarkably undisciplined this season — they lead the league in penalty yards, their tackling has been lousy, and they have been as effective at stopping the run as my neighbor’s “no socialism” sign was at getting McCain elected. I’m still waiting for Ryan Grant to get going (that 69 yards a game and two TDs all season is killing my fantasy team), and worst of all, Aaron Rodgers’s performance over the last two weeks has caused fans to utter the dreaded “f” words (“Favre” being one, the other being one I can’t use on this Web site) and begin to wonder whether, after playing so sparingly before this season, he has hit the proverbial wall that many rookies do in their first season.

Rodgers’s play is important because if the Packers are to avoid losing two crucial division games in two weeks, he will have to perform better. The Bears have only allowed 73 total rushing yards in the last two games, meaning that Ryan Grant will likely continue his season-long streak of being of limited value. (Note to self: Get Grant out of fantasy lineup). The good news is that in those same two games, the Bears have allowed Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins to be as dominant as Dan Fouts and Phil Collins circa 1985. Rodgers should be able to bounce back, provided that he can get better protection than he got last week at the Metrodome. I don’t see how it could be any worse.

On the Bears side of the ball, it’s a question mark whether Kyle Orton’s ankle will allow him to play or whether Rex Grossman will start for the second week in a row. Signs favor Orton starting, which certainly helps the Bears, but if the Packers run defense continues to stink and the team can’t contain Matt Forte (sixth in the NFC in rushing), it’s moot who’s under center.

Bears head coach Lovie Smith has been as effective at beating the Packers as Vikings head coach Brad Childress has been ineffective. Smith has never lost at Lambeau and the Bears have won six of the past eight overall. Frankly, most signs point to Smith continuing his streak, but something tells me as Childress’s streak of futility against McCarthy (barely) ended, so will Smith’s streak of excellence at Lambeau (barely). Packers 28, Bears 27.


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