[*takes whiff of the brisk November air*]
Ahhh — it’s #AxeWeek
The No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers look to cement their spot in the Big Ten championship game when they square off against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the 126th installment of the rivalry.
UW (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) takes on a Minnesota team (8-3, 5-3) coming off a win at home against Northwestern, and looking to regain Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 13 outings.
Minnesota comes into Madison with an 8-3 record, 5-3 in the conference. Two of their three losses are to programs ranked in the Top 20. Generally speaking, how have the Gophers looked under Tracy Claeys, and what's the feeling heading into this rivalry game?
It's been a season where the Gophers have beaten the teams they were supposed to beat and lost to good teams. There has been quite a bit of hand wringing over the fact that all three of their losses have been winnable games that the Gophers seemingly let slip through their fingers. Moral victories aren't much consolation to this fanbase at the moment, and with good reason. Minnesota has now won eight games in three of the last four seasons, and Gopher fans aren't quite as satisfied anymore with wins over Illinois and Purdue. Their focus has shifted to the program's currently empty trophy case.
This Saturday represents a chance to nab a trophy that has absent from that trophy case for over a decade now. A win over Wisconsin would significantly change the complexion of this season for a lot of Gopher fans. Minnesota has yet to beat a single team with a pulse, so the Wisconsin game is a chance at a signature win for Tracy Claeys in his first season. The Badgers certainly don't appear vulnerable at the moment as they close in on a division title, and the game is at Camp Randall, so Gopher fans are well aware of the enormous challenge ahead. But they're looking forward to giving Wisconsin their best shot.
On offense, the rushing attack is averaging over 191 yards per game, with Rodney Smith leading the way. What has made Smith and Shannon Brooks so dynamic in the run game?
Rodney Smith is one of the underrated running backs in the Big Ten, in my opinion. The redshirt sophomore has rushed for 1,039 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Patient and elusive, Smith has added an element of toughness to his game this season that has allowed him to become the workhorse of this offense. He also provided a spark on special teams, with a kickoff return for a touchdown against Rutgers. Brooks missed the first two games of the season with a broken foot, allowing Smith to seize control of the running back position. He has been solid this season, but not nearly the home run threat that he was last season. Together, the two represent a formidable tandem at running back for the Gophers. Just when opposing defenses think they have one of them bottled up, the other enters and starts finding room to run.
On the flip side, Minnesota's 107th in the nation in the pass game. Mitch Leidner's completed under 60 percent of his passes and has only thrown six touchdown passes compared to eight interceptions. What's happened this season to his game, and who are the weapons in the passing game?
It's not been a great season for Mitch Leidner. Against Big Ten competition, Leidner has thrown two passing touchdowns and eight interceptions. That's not at all what you'd hope for from a third-year starter at quarterback, obviously. Fortunately, the Gophers have been able to lean on their running game to put points on the board.
It's been a perfect storm for Leidner. The Gophers brought in a new offensive coordinator in the offseason, and the passing game — which picked up steam towards the end of last season — has regressed under his watch. The wide receiver corps has been listless outside of Drew Wolitarsky and without tight end Brandon Lingen. An offensive line thin on depth has been banged up. And Mitch had one of the worst games of his career against Iowa, even suffering a concussion late in the game. He hasn't been the same since. It's been a disappointing season for the senior quarterback, to say the least.
Outside of Wolitarsky -- who is the team's leading receiver, and it's not a close competition -- Leidner's next best target is sophomore Rashad Still, who seems to be the only Minnesota wide receiver capable of stretching the field.
Defensively, Minnesota's sacked quarterbacks 33 times this year -- tied for second in the conference, and they allow under 120 yards per game rushing. That may not bode well for a Wisconsin running game that has rushed for 200 yards in four of its last six games. Who are the standouts on that Gophers' defense?
Up front, junior defensive tackle Steven Richardson is a wrecking ball. He leads all defensive linemen with 29 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. He is a disruptive force up the middle, and if the Badgers can't find a way to neutralize him, they'll suffer the same fate as Northwestern.
The Gophers are deep at the linebacker position, led by seniors Jack Lynn (65 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss) and Nick Rallis (22 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss). But junior linebacker Jonathan Celestin has also made a name for himself this year, leading the team in total tackles with 72, including seven tackles for loss. Even with junior linebacker Cody Poock (24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss) lost to injury, Minnesota has been able to plug and play at this position, with sophomore preferred walk-on Blake Cashman stepping in on passing downs and collecting 19 tackles and five sacks over the last three games.
In the secondary, senior safety Damarius Travis is the leader, and you'll see him a lot in run support. The biggest surprise this season has been the emergence of freshman Antoine Winfield, Jr., who is fourth on the team in tackles with 48. The Gophers will also need sophomore KiAnte Hardin at cornerback after he missed the second half against Northwestern with an undisclosed injury. Hardin is a difference maker on this defense opposite senior cornerback Jalen Myrick.
The Gophers are also impressive in turnover margin at +11 on the year -- seventh in the nation. What's led to that mark? Where can Wisconsin exploit Minnesota?
This Gopher offense doesn't turn the ball over a whole lot. They've been known to shoot themselves in the foot with illegal procedure penalties, but turnovers have not been a huge issue. Leidner has thrown at least one interception in seven of his last eight games, but to counter that, the offense has only coughed up four fumbles on the season. It'd be nice if Mitch could stop throwing the ball to the other team once a game, but the Gophers have been able to limit their mistakes.
On the defensive side of the ball, Minnesota has more fumble recoveries (15) than anyone else in college football, and Gopher defensive linemen have been responsible for eight of those fumbles. The Gophers' boast a defensive front that is constantly attacking the football and trying to give their offense the ball and a short field with which to work. The secondary doesn't come up with a lot of interceptions -- just eight on the season so far -- but you can't have everything.
The Gopher defense matches up well with the Badgers, in my opinion. This is a battle that will be fought in the trenches. But Minnesota has been susceptible to big plays through the air this season. If the Badgers can get their passing game going, that will loosen up the Gophers' defensive front and allow more running room for Corey Clement. Stating the obvious, but tackling will also be key for Minnesota. Sloppy tackling is what doomed this defense against Nebraska, particularly in the second half. If the Gophers aren't sound fundamentally against the Badgers, they're in trouble.
What are your keys to the game, and your prediction for Saturday's 126th meeting between Minnesota and Wisconsin?
To me, if the Gophers want to win this game, seize Paul Bunyan's Axe, and end this God-forsaken streak, they'll need to do a couple different things. On defense, they need to limit big plays and put the brakes on Clement. On offense, the Gophers have to be able to run the football, which will be easier said than done against the Badgers' defensive front. This offense simply can't function without being able to move the ball on the ground. I expect a low-scoring game, and I'll be surprised if either team even comes close to scoring 30 points. On paper, there is no real reason to think this is a favorable match-up for the Gophers, but you know what, I'll go Minnesota 17, Wisconsin 16, because what the hell.