The No. 12 (CFP) Wisconsin Badgers (9-2 overall, 6-2 B1G) are in Minneapolis on an Axe retrieval mission against the No. 8 Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-1 overall, 7-1 B1G) this weekend.
Minnesota beat Wisconsin for the first time in 14 years last season and after spending all offseason parading Wisconsin’s Axe around the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the Gopher have come out and played some of the best football in the country.
College GameDay is in Minneapolis. The B1G West division title is on the line. Paul Bunyan’s Axe is on the line. A potential Rose Bowl berth is on the line. It should be a damn good game.
Blake Ruane of our SB Nation cousins The Daily Gopher was kind enough to take some time and answer our questions before the biggest Axe game in, well, decades.
1) What has made Tanner Morgan so successful (outside of having a wonderful crew of wide receivers) this season? Is it the play-calling? Is it just having awesome wideouts? Did he visit a shaman in the offseason?
I’m not going to rule out offseason workouts with a shaman, because Tanner Morgan has defied whatever expectations Gopher fans may have had for him coming into this season. He was effective last year as a redshirt freshman, starting the final five games of the season. But he was expected to be back in a quarterback competition with sophomore Zack Annexstad this year, before Annexstad suffered a season-ending foot injury during fall camp. Thus, Morgan retained the starting spot by default, and I think most fans lamented the lack of a true competition. Expectations were modest at best. Then four games into the season, he set a Big Ten record for completion percentage in a game. Not bad, eh?
Admittedly, he certainly benefits from passing the ball to the likes of Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, who are going to catch 99% of whatever is thrown their way. But Morgan is the point guard of the Gophers’ offense, which is by design. To run RPOs effectively, you need a quarterback with good instincts and a high football I.Q. to make quick (and correct) reads. Morgan is exactly that. He has mastered the offense, makes good decisions, and is very accurate as a passer. He can make NFL throws and put the ball where only his receivers can catch it. Best of all, he does not make a lot of mistakes. Not all of his decisions have been perfect and he has made boneheaded throws on occasion, but his missteps have been few and far between.
2) Say, in some crazy reality, the Badgers secondary holds the Gophers receivers in check. What does the running game bring to the table this year? Does Morgan bring anything with his legs?
The Gophers will run inside or outside zone, depending on what they see from the defense. Their offensive line is big but athletic. They have a tendency to get better as the game goes along. Opposing defenses, for some reason, have stacked the box early, and Minnesota has responded in kind by torching them through the air with RPO plays to loosen things up. Rodney Smith will get the bulk of the carries, but Shannon Brooks and Mohamed Ibrahim will also be champing at the bit to get on the field. Minnesota will probably try to utilize all three. Smith is the most complete back of the three, Brooks is the bruiser of the bunch, and Ibrahim is more of a straightforward downhill runner.
Tanner Morgan is not a dual-threat quarterback. He can certainly scramble to extend plays when flushed out of the pocket, but you’ll very rarely see him take off and run.
3) Who is a player on the Gophers that is a bit under-the-radar that Badger fans can namedrop at the bar to sound smart?
I’ll give you two options, one for offense and one for defense, so you can sound super duper smart. The “regulars” will be so impressed! Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell is the third musketeer to Johnson and Bateman. While defenses are homed in on those two, Autman-Bell is getting open and taking slants and tunnel screens to the house.
The other name is linebacker Kamal Martin. He has quietly been one of their best defenders all season and he’ll play a critical role in slowing/limiting/containing Jonathan Taylor on Saturday.
4) Where do you see Wisconsin having an advantage in this game?
If the Gophers are able to slow Jonathan Taylor, I’m curious if we’ll see Wisconsin take a similar approach to Penn State in the passing game. Utilizing their tight end Pat Freiermuth in the intermediate passing game, the Nittany Lions found holes in the Gophers’ coverage, especially on third downs. I know the Badgers’ Jake Ferguson hasn’t had a prolific season as a pass catcher up to this point, but I could see Paul Chryst opening up the playbook a bit to keep Minnesota’s defense honest and put the Gophers’ linebackers on their heels.
I’m also skeptical of Minnesota being able to run the ball effectively and consistently against the Badgers’ defensive front. I think Wisconsin is much better at defending the run than defending the pass, and with the potential for inclement weather possibly putting a damper on the Gophers’ vaunted passing attack, being able to have success on the ground will be critical.
5) Who is a player (non-Jonathan Taylor division) that worries you on the Badgers?
I think the Badgers’ wide receivers are better than most people give them credit for. They are rarely called upon, because when you have Jonathan Taylor in the backfield, you’re going to give the ball to Jonathan Taylor, naturally. But they’ve flashed the ability to make plays in the passing game. I still think Minnesota’s best chance of beating Wisconsin is to focus on stopping the run and forcing Jack Coan to beat them, but I fear their wide receivers may actually be up to the challenge.
6) What is your sign going to be at GameDay?
Unfortunately, I won’t be at the game. I’ll be with family in Iowa for the holiday weekend. But if I was going to be there, you can’t go wrong with old faithful:
7) Prediction for the game. MVP for the game. What bowl are the Gophers going to?
I hate this part, because I really don’t know. I think the teams are evenly matched. I could see Minnesota doing what they’ve done to every other secondary they’ve faced this year and torching the Badgers through the air. But I could also see the Gophers missing tackles and struggling to shed blocks, allowing Jonathan Taylor to consistently churn out yards and extend drives. When you introduce the possibility of rain and/or snow, chaos reigns. What I do know is that the Gophers have experienced this kind of intense build-up for a high-stakes game before, and they fed off the atmosphere of a sold-out crowd against Penn State. If forced to choose, I can’t pick against the home team under these circumstances.
Minnesota 27, Wisconsin 20.
The MVP of the game will be Tanner Morgan. As Tanner goes, so goes the Gophers’ offense. If they win, he’ll have been a big part of it. As far as the bowl game goes, I think Minnesota is headed to the Rose Bowl with a win over Wisconsin, assuming a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Lose to the Badgers and Minnesota probably ends up in the Outback Bowl.