It all comes down to this. One game to determine the winner of the Axe and the West division. It’s by far the biggest game of 2019 for both teams, and probably the biggest game in this rivalry’s recent history. The series between Minnesota and Wisconsin is one of the longest running in the nation. These two teams have battled 128 times, and nothing has been decided. The record between both teams is 60-60-8, so really, it all comes down to this.
How awesome is that?
Here’s what the Badgers will need to do to be on the right side of it, and bring home the important pieces above.
Limit Big Plays
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the key match up in this game. Simply put, how Wisconsin handles Minnesota’s receivers is likely going to decide this one. Minnesota’s offense is pretty straight forward. Run the ball, throw underneath off the read option, and then hit you with the big plays downfield once you’re sucked in.
You see it in the stats, as quarterback Tanner Morgan is top five in yards per completion. The trouble is trying to stop it, and it’s a scheme the Badgers have been hurt by a lot this season.
Ohio State, Illinois and Nebraska all gashed the Badgers using these same principles. Even Purdue adjusted their attack to keep the Badgers on their toes. It’s inevitable that the Badgers will give up some, but it’s really going to be key to limit the big plays. If you sustain a body blow, fine, but you can’t take too many.
One way to combat this is by getting pressure from the front seven, something Jim Leonhard loves to do. Minnesota has struggled in pass protection at times and rank No. 85 in sacks allowed. If you want to help your secondary Wisconsin needs to bring pressure, and if you do, you’ll have to get there and make the play.
Take care of the football
In week 14 of the season you shouldn’t be having to have this discussion, but here we are. The Badgers we’re atrocious at this on Saturday against Purdue, and if it happens again this week you can go ahead and kiss the Axe goodbye for the second straight year.
The Badgers turned the ball over four times last weekend which was the most since, well, anyone wanna guess? If you guessed the 2018 Minnesota game you are CORRECT! We all saw how that shook out. You can make those mistakes and get away with it against Purdue, but you can’t against a team like Minnesota.
Any team with half a pulse can make a game of it if they’re given four extra opportunities. In the first half of the season Wisconsin gave away the football just six times. In the second half of the season they’ve double that, giving it away 12 times. That just can’t happen. If the Badgers want to come away with the Axe, they’ll need to improve that mark and win the turnover battle rather than lose it like they have in four of the last five weeks.
This key to victory can get taken a few different ways. Firstly, from an X’s and O’s standpoint, balance will be crucial. Last season Minnesota homed in on Jonathan Taylor because frankly that was the only threat to them on defense. It worked, as quarterback Alex Hornibrook put together his magnum opus throwing three interceptions and leading the Badgers to their first loss against the Gophers in well over a decade.
The good thing for Wisconsin is that quarterback Jack Coan has been much more efficient with the football this season. Coan is top-15 in passing efficiency, and third in completion percentage. People will highlight the costly throws, but over the course of 2019 Coan has been solid in his role.
I expect Wisconsin to continue to give Coan those throws in an effort to be balanced on that side of the football. If you have a passing game threat, you see what Jonathan Taylor can do when working off of it and vice versa. The Badgers have done a good job of getting other playmakers involved the last few weeks, and they’ll need to continue that in this contest.
Additionally, balance will be important in terms of emotion. This game is so big, in so many different ways, that it’s easy to get overly emotional about it. At the end of the day, this is still just another football game. If you come out overly aggressive or overly conservative it can lead to mistakes or missed opportunities. Finding balance and composure in this game will be key on and off the field. The narratives and story lines for this game are huge, so blocking that out and focusing on the task at hand will be imperative leading up to Saturday.