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Wisconsin vs. Minnesota: What to expect from the Gophers

The Daily Gopher provides a glimpse into P.J. Fleck’s first year.

Minnesota v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

AXE WEEK is upon us, with the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers looking to retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 14th straight season against the Minnesota Gophers on Saturday.

Wisconsin (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) is looking for its first unbeaten conference record in 105 years, when the team went 5-0 in Big Ten play back in 1912. The Badgers are also looking to lead the the all-time series against Minnesota (5-6, 2-6) for the first time ever. The two programs have fought to a mark of 59-59-8.

Minnesota is coming off a rough 39-0 loss at Northwestern last week and looking to become bowl eligible in P.J. Fleck’s first year as head coach.

The team is currently fourth in the Big Ten in rushing offense (190.5 yards per game) on the legs of Rodney Smith (895 yards, 4.2 yards per game) and Kobe McCrary (476 yards, 5.8 yards per carry, eight touchdowns). They have rushed for 409 yards against Nebraska, 292 versus Illinois and 227 against Purdue in Big Ten play. The offense is 10th in the conference in points per game scored (24.1), however.

Passing-wise, the Gophers are 120th in the nation at just under 134 yards per contest. Quarterback Demry Croft has completed only 42.1 percent of his passes in eight games, throwing for 634 yards with four touchdowns and seven interceptions. Tyler Johnson (35 receptions, 677 yards, seven touchdowns) is the only Gopher to reel in above 20 catches on the year, but he is out with a broken left hand.

Defensively, the Gophers give up nearly 162 yards on the ground (10th in the Big Ten) but is third in pass defense, giving up 175 yards per contest. The unit has given up big rushing peformances to Maryland (262), Michigan State (245), Michigan (371), and Northwestern (277) in conference play.

Chris from the The Daily Gopher answered some questions to help us preview Minnesota.

Minnesota is 5-6 heading into AXE WEEK, this after a 39-0 loss to Northwestern. P.J. Fleck, however, just agreed to an extension through 2023. How has Fleck's first year with the Gophers gone, and where have there been positive areas of improvement but also pain points?

It hasn't been an ideal season to be sure. But ultimately I'm not as pessimistic about it as some Minnesota fans. The Gophers were leading both the Maryland and Purdue games late and played both Michigan State and Iowa fairly close despite performances that would rate as abysmal or worse. Ultimately, I think this season has been a perfect storm of injuries, depth issues, and bumps from a transition to a new staff. Many Gopher fans are struggling with this due to the team winning nine games last year, which was always a bit of a mirage season given that Minnesota nearly lost to a really bad Rutgers team at home and played one of the weakest schedules in the country overall. Basically at the end of the day, Minnesota is in another coaching transition and, well, coaching transitions suck when you weren't fielding teams stocked with Top 10 recruiting classes or when you don't practice whatever dark magic Barry likes.

We always like to ask about injuries. Who could or will not play on Saturday, and how will that impact Minnesota's game plan to try to win back the Axe?

A better question might be who will be playing on Saturday. Minnesota is without its best defensive back (and arguably best defender) in Antoine Winfield Jr. They're without their top wide receiver in Tyler Johnson. They are without both our starting center (Jared Wyler) and might be out his backup (redshirt freshman Connor Olson). Linebacker, Jonathan Celestin has been battling injury for weeks. We're out a couple of other wide receivers who would be seeing pretty significant time...I'm going to trail off and let the broken record spin.

At the end of the day, Minnesota isn't the better team regardless but the injuries aren't going to help.

Offensively, Minnesota rushes for over 190 yards, good for fourth in the conference, but is 120th in the nation in passing at just under 134 yards per contest. What has made the offense so one-sided, and who could give Wisconsin problems on Saturday?

No. 1 issue is that we don't have a quarterback we can rely on. I know Wisconsin fans like to complain about having Alex Hornibrook, but if we had him Minnesota would be 7-4 right now which given everything sounds pretty nice. Starter Demry Croft has all the tools to be a good quarterback, but he lacks consistency in his decision making and executing. If he plays a near perfect game, you get the Nebraska boatrace. If he doesn't, you get Northwestern.

That's a bit of a simplification because the wide receivers have also struggled with drops and not getting separation, so even on days when Demry is doing well, we often struggle through the air. But the No. 1 issue is the lack of a quarterback and its something Fleck clearly acknowledges.

On the opposite side of the ball, Minnesota gives up 161.7 yards per game on the ground (that includes 371 vs. Michigan and 277 vs. Northwestern) but is among the conference's best in passing defense. Who leads this unit, and where are there areas of concern?

The Gophers have struggled in multiple areas against the run, but lately the problem has been with annoyingly simple elements like gap responsibility, tackling, etc. The linebackers remain the strongest unit overall, and from that unit I'd keep my eye on Celestin and Thomas Barber. Carter Coughlin is a young linebacker who has been playing a lot as a hybrid rush defensive end and having success. If Minnesota is going to have a good day you'll see his name pop up a lot, too.

We cannot NOT ask about specialists (#SpecialistsArePeopleToo). How have the special teams looked this year?

How very B1G of you! Overall good but not great. Punter Ryan Santoso was leading the Big Ten in punting for much of the year, but is currently 3rd following a bad day at Northwestern. Kicker Emmit Carpenter had some early struggles but has been solid overall coming off a B1G Kicker of the Year season.

What are your keys to the game, and a score prediction?

Are y'all planning to sit Jonathan Taylor for the whole game to rest him for the B1G Championship Game? No? Then I think the key is for Minnesota fans to have other ways to enjoy the game than solely by the product on the field.

Prediction? Wisconsin: Many, Minnesota: Far less