The No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers (10-2 overall, 7-2 B1G) took back what was rightfully theirs Saturday against the No. 8 Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-2 overall, 7-2 B1G) by winning 38-17 to reclaim Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
In this weekly installment, here are three items that I think we learned about the Badgers after their game Saturday.
Peaking in the trenches
A big reason for Wisconsin’s success against the Gophers was the ability of the Wisconsin offensive and defensive lines to win the battle in the trenches.
Behind the offensive line, Wisconsin averaged 4.9 yards per carry on the way to 173 rushing yards and three rushing scores. While those rushing numbers are below the season averages, the offensive line was at its best in pass protection.
Against Minnesota, the offensive line didn’t yield any sacks, and gave quarterback Jack Coan abundant time in the pocket. Coan was able to pick apart the Gophers secondary on his way to 280 yards through the air and two touchdowns.
After struggling in the middle part of the year to open up running lanes and provide Coan time to throw, the offensive line is peaking at the right time. The results have been an offensive resurgence for Wisconsin.
Not to be outdone, the Wisconsin defensive line held up extremely well against a Minnesota offensive line that has the heaviest starting lineup in the nation. Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk in particular were exceptional. In re-watching, both players were constantly around the ball and did a nice job of closing down running lanes. Freshman nose tackle Keeanu Benton also had a great game, as he had a big third down stop to force a punt in the first quarter.
Good morning Bucky Twitter. Garrett Rand dumps Tanner Morgan in the 2nd half, causing a fumble. pic.twitter.com/jrORiBhIZO— B5Qphotos (@B5Qphotos) December 1, 2019
Rand finished the game with seven tackles, a sack, and a force fumble. Loudermilk had four tackles and was credited with a half sack in conjunction with Chris Orr. In a defense predicated on the line clogging lanes to allow the linebackers to make plays, Rand and Loudermilk took matters into their own hands at times against Minnesota.
The defense as a whole was able to hold the Gophers to only 76 yards on the ground, at a 2.5 yards per carry clip, in addition to five team sacks. A stark change from last season in which Minnesota ran for over 200 yards on the Badgers, and the Wisconsin defense had zero sacks. A big reason of that was the play of a healthy defensive line.
Head coach Paul Chryst, and coordinators Joe Rudolph and Jim Leonhard pushed all the right buttons in Minneapolis.
TROPHY SZN UPDATE:— Bucky's 5th Axe Retrieval Unit (@B5Q) December 1, 2019
Heartland Trophy: ✅
Freedom Trophy: ✅
Paul Bunyan’s Axe: ✅ https://t.co/4nurpECX7y
The offensive game plan was creative and put the skilled players in spots to succeed. Minnesota entered with one of the best defenses in the conference, and the Gophers were determined to shut down the inside run.
Rudolph and Chryst responded by using reverses with Kendric Pryor, as well as zone reads and play action with Jack Coan to keep Minnesota off balance in the running game.
The result was Wisconsin being able to put up 453 yards of offense on them, averaging 7.9 yards per play. Well above Minnesota’s season average.
Coan was never asked to do too much in a wintry mix of rain and snow, but he delivered all day long to a wide array of targets. The Badger offense hit on some deep shots, but also wrinkled in some nice screen passes. Everything was working for the Wisconsin offense in this one.
This may be an unpopular opinion (outside of the state of Wisconsin), but I really dislike the "show" PJ Fleck puts on; always sprinting down the field, he leads his team on the field to start to the game, it just seems like he's making it more about him, than about the players.— Bucky's 5th Axe Retrieval Unit (@B5Q) November 30, 2019
The most notable difference between the head coaches beyond their demeanor and sense of style, was aggressiveness. When the game mattered most, Paul Chryst rolled the dice and converted two fourth downs, and was willing to try trickeration in special teams. P.J. Fleck on the other hand punted on fourth and two to go on Wisconsin’s 35 yard line on their second drive of the game. Fleck’s conservativeness ultimately hurt the Gophers in this contest, as Paul Chryst out-shined his counterpart in all facets.
Best of the west
Entering the season, Nebraska and Iowa garnered the highest number of media votes in the Cleveland.com preseason poll to win the Big Ten West division. In the end neither team will be representing the conference in Indianapolis.
Instead Wisconsin, who was picked third by the media, will once again represent the division and play in their seventh Big Ten Championship Game.
After a letdown 8-5 record a season ago, in 2019 the Badgers have won 10 games for the thirteenth time in the program history, with a chance to add to that total next weekend against Ohio State where they open up as 16.5 point underdogs (Editor’s note: hey, not terrible!).
The Badgers rebounded nicely this season, and have outperformed expectations. With a Rose Bowl berth still possible, Wisconsin has once again shown the nation why they should not be taken lightly, and retaken the helm at the top of the Big Ten west division thanks to sweeping their trophy games with Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.