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Wisconsin football: keys to victory in the Battle for the Axe

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What do the Badgers need to do to rebound and keep the Axe in Madison?

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Last week the Badgers fell to Iowa 28-7 in what was perhaps the ugliest game Wisconsin has played the last three weeks (woof). This week the Badgers return home to try and salvage something from this awful season, the Axe. As the old saying goes, throw out the records in this matchup because you know it’s going to be a fight in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Here’s what Wisconsin needs to do to keep the Axe in its rightful home.

Wisconsin v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Please find some sort of run game

Minnesota comes into this game 3-3. This season has certainly been a struggle for the Gophers given the expectations. The biggest problem in 2020 has been Minnesota’s run defense. Coming into this week the Gophers rank No. 89 in total defense, but No. 10 in rushing defense. With a pass defense that ranks No. 44, its clear to see where the big problem is for this Gopher defense.

In their three losses this season Minnesota is giving up an average of 257 yards per game on the ground. In their two wins? Well they’ve surrendered just 153 yards on the ground in each of those contests. In my eyes, the formula is simple. Keep it on the ground, and keep the clock moving in your favor. Those are two things Wisconsin normally does pretty well, but they haven’t recently, albeit against better fronts than this. If the Badgers can put up 200 yards plus on the ground this game should be a W but that sounds like a tall task with Jalen Berger likely out.

If Wisconsin wants to win this game they have to get back to their roots and find some rushing offense. If it all falls on Graham Mertz, well, you’ve seen the results.

Wisconsin v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Get some pressure

Coming into the season the main concern for the Badgers on the defensive side of the football was how you replace the departures of linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun. More specifically, how do you replace the pressure they put on opposing quarterbacks. So far this season if there has been one knock for this Badgers unit it has been the pressure side of things. Wisconsin is getting very little pressure at this point yet the defensive unit as a whole is still very strong. While that’s great, it can’t last forever.

This week the Badgers will go up against a Gopher offense that has had ebbs and flows so far this season. Last week the Gopher offense looked a little rusty and Tanner Morgan completed just 56% of his passes. In their loss to Iowa Morgan completed just 48% of his passes and was sacked four times. In Minnesota’s opener against Michigan, Morgan also completed just 58% of his passes and was sacked five times.

The recipe is right there in front of you. To beat Minnesota and slow this attack you have to get in the face of Morgan and get home for sacks. When you make him move it makes him miss throws, and it kills drives. The Badgers have done well to get hurries, but they need to finish the job this week.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Win (or just don’t lose) the turnover battle

Not hanging onto the football makes you lose football games. Of course, Wisconsin doesn’t mean to turn the football over, but it has happened far too much this season. For Wisconsin, some you can live with. If you’re playing a redshirt freshman at quarterback some of these turnovers are just part of the game. However, you have to limit them or you have to at least force some on the other side. Currently, Wisconsin ranks No. 106 in turnover margin with an average margin of -0.60. That is a huge reason why this team is where they are at currently, and if the turnover battle is lost again you probably already know what the result will be.

Minnesota is 3-3 this season and the 2020 season has been kind of silly overall with COVID, but that doesn’t matter in this game. This is still Wisconsin/Minnesota. This game still counts, and the winner still takes home the Axe. If Wisconsin wants to be the team that does so they need to control the momentum and take care of the football in this contest and not let Minnesota turn the tide and gain momentum.

The last time Minnesota came to Madison it was ugly on the turnover side, and I really don’t have the mental capacity left to watch that again this time out. This season has been rough for both teams, but the Axe still matters and would be a big momentum boost for years to come.