The No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers look to lock down their ticket to the Big Ten championship game on Saturday afternoon, on Senior Day, against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
UW (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) also looks to retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe for a 13th straight season against Minnesota (8-3, 5-3) in the 126th installment of the rivalry. With a victory inside Camp Randall Stadium, Wisconsin would officially tie the series up at 59-59-8.
The three keys to Bucky winning the Big Ten West division, heading to Indy and keeping their College Football Playoff chances alive:
Keep the progression of the run game going
The Gophers come allowing only 116.6 yards per game on the ground, 16th-best in the nation.
Minnesota boasts a defensive line featuring junior tackle Stephen Richardson (seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss). As noted in our Q&A with The Daily Gopher’s Blake Ruane this week, the Badgers will have to also get blockers on linebackers Jack Lynn (65 tackles, 6.5 for loss), Jonathan Celestin (72 tackles) and walk-on Blake Cashman (six sacks, seven tackles for loss).
“Their defensive line is probably the strength of their defense, but they’re a well-rounded defense, don’t get me wrong,” redshirt senior quarterback Bart Houston said on Tuesday. “Then the fact it is the Axe Game—they’re going to come and hit. They’ve put it on tape that they’re going to come and hit.”
The Badgers have been surging of late, gaining over 200 rushing yards in four of their last six games (five if you don’t count that last offensive series at Northwestern). Last week against Purdue, Wisconsin utilized outside runs that helped jump start the offense, including some three-tight end sets and even using Houston as a viable rushing option. It will be interesting to see how they attack the Gophers defense in that facet of the offense.
Minnesota does allow about 235 yards per game through the air, good for 75th in the nation. UW threw for 191 yards last week with the combo of Houston and Alex Hornibrook at quarterback in a promising development for the offense. Fans may see some sweet Jazz (Peavy) playing into Saturday evening, but UW needs to establish the run game once again.
“They’re tough guys, and they don’t take plays off,” sophomore fullback Alec Ingold said about Minnesota’s defense on Tuesday. “They’re downhill players, and it’s definitely going to be a huge challenge for our offense. They’re well-coached, well-disciplined. They play hard. It’s always going to be a close game when we’re playing Minnesota, so we got to take the physicality to them too.
“We got to play our game, so we just got to execute our game plan and see how it goes.”
Stuff the Minnesota run game
The Gophers rush for 191.7 yards per game behind sophomores Rodney Smith (1,039 yards, 15 rushing touchdowns) and Shannon Brooks (562 yards, five rushing touchdowns). Fortunately for the Badgers, they give up only 98.3 yards per contest and only six touchdowns on the ground the entire season, fifth-best in the nation and leading the Big Ten in the former category.
Contain Smith and Brooks, and Wisconsin will be able to force Minnesota to beat them through the air. Redshirt senior quarterback Mitch Leidner has completed only 58.6 percent of his throws this year with six touchdown passes and eight interceptions. As Ruane noted, Leidner has thrown only two touchdowns but has been picked off eight times in conference play.
That’s led to Minnesota ranking 107th in the nation in passing offense in the FBS. The Badgers defense had a couple of blips in the passing game against Purdue with big gains of 48 and 75-yard receptions against them, but they won’t necessarily face the offensive weapons the Boilermakers threw at them.
Outside of senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky (57 receptions, 711 yards, four receiving touchdowns), no other Gopher has over 30 catches on the season.
Keep the turnover margin in their favor
Minnesota is seventh-best in the nation in turnover margin (plus-11). As Ruane pointed out on Tuesday:
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.
Richardson himself has two of the eight defensive line-forced fumbles. Wisconsin can ill afford the Gophers to get momentum in this game, as the Gophers average over 31 points per game.
On the flip side, Wisconsin has forced 21 turnovers on the season, with seven interceptions forced in the last two games alone. Fourteen points alone came off of the three picks in the second quarter alone at Purdue last week, including T.J. Watt’s impressive self-tipped interception that he returned 17 yards for a touchdown.
It may be cliché, but keep the turnovers down, and Wisconsin should keep the Axe in Madison.
Prediction: Wisconsin 20, Minnesota 10
It’s rivalry week, and it will probably be a close game. Minnesota’s defense, though it hasn’t necessarily won that signature game yet this season, boasts an intimidating line that could cause Wisconsin’s progressing front five some problems.
The Badgers’ defense will have to contend with a potent Gophers rush game with Smith and Brooks, but the strength of Minnesota’s offense plays into the strength of Wisconsin’s defense.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s squad contains the Gophers’ running game, and will zero in on Leidner and his poor passing attack.
Offensively, Wisconsin finds enough explosive plays to put away its adversary to the west. It won’t be a high-scoring affair, but UW finds its way to Indianapolis with the College Football Playoff still within reach.