Badgers. Gophers. Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
What else needs to be said? NOTHING! Well, hold on, something still needs to be said, the game isn’t until Saturday after all. We had some questions about the Gophers and Blake Ruane of The Daily Gopher was nice enough to answer them for us...again.
See, when the game was originally scheduled Blake and I had already sent each other questions and so we answered them anyway even though the game got canceled.
Newly minted Big Ten Running Back of the Year Mohamed Ibrahim has been having a monster season running the ball for the Gophers this year, already crushing his career-high for TDs and closing in on a career-high for yards. Why has he been so successful this year?
Mohamed Ibrahim is the perfect running back for the Gophers’ zone blocking scheme. I actually wrote about this back in September. At 5-foot-10 and 210 lbs., he has a low center of gravity and a natural lean to his physical running style. He is the hammer rather than the nail, initiating contact and making it difficult for defenders to bring him down. But his most elite skill is his vision. He is a patient runner who can read his blockers and find his way to daylight.
While he is not having an Adrian Martinez or Joe Milton-esque season, Tanner Morgan has struggled under center compared to last year. Is it simply that he lost Tyler Johnson and teams are focused on stopping Rashod Bateman or is there something else going on?
It’s a different offense from a season ago. Former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca returned home to Pennsylvania to take the same position with Penn State and was replaced by offensive co-coordinators Mike Sanford Jr. and Matt Simon. The RPO plays that were the Gophers’ bread and butter last year have largely been replaced by more traditional play-action passes.
Up until the Purdue game, Morgan hadn’t looked comfortable with his pre- and post-snap reads, and the route combinations left much to be desired. But the passing game took a big step forward against the Boilermakers. Morgan was dropping absolute dimes downfield in the vertical passing game, the pass protection was clean, and wide receivers not named Rashod Bateman finally started taking advantage of the single coverage afforded to them by the defense bracketing Bateman.
But since Bateman has opted out of the rest of the season, those wide receivers not named Rashod Bateman are front and center and played well enough against Nebraska. The pressure will be on them to create separation against a veteran Wisconsin secondary on Saturday, especially with how much pressure Jim Leonhard is expected to dial up on Morgan.
The Gophers defense has been, well, bad against the run this year. The Badgers rushing attack has been average and has struggled without freshman Jalen Berger who isn’t going to play against Minnesota. The UW passing game has been ineffective recently too. Does anything about the Badgers offense concern you on Saturday?
I’ll admit to being surprised at how the Badgers’ offense has struggled in their last three games, especially after the success they had against Illinois and Michigan. But I think it’s also important to note that those struggles came against three of the top defenses in the Big Ten. If Minnesota’s defense does not come to play on Saturday, they are going to be in trouble. You have to actually do the work of stifling the Badgers’ run game and putting pressure on Graham Mertz to force mistakes.
What worries me is the Wisconsin offensive line. They are always going to be a problem. Minnesota’s defensive line has to continue to be disruptive and make plays at the line of scrimmage, which is something they weren’t able to do at the start of the season but did against Iowa, Purdue and Nebraska. And the linebackers need to play fast, shed blocks and plug gaps.
If it sounds like basic stuff, that’s because it is. They are a young and inexperienced group that has frequently struggled to do what is necessary to stop the run. They showed significant improvement against the Huskers a week ago, but the Badgers present a much tougher challenge.
Who are two under-the-radar players (one from each side of the ball) that might make a difference in winning or losing for Minnesota?
Chris Autman-Bell at wide receiver. You can be sure the Gophers will want to run the ball, so Minnesota is going to need Autman-Bell, true freshman Daniel Jackson and the rest of the receiving corps to create separation and force the Wisconsin defense to respect their passing game.
On defense, I’ll go with linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin. He is Minnesota’s lone upperclassman at linebacker, and they’ve desperately needed him to be better. He took a big step forward a week ago, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week with 18 tackles against Nebraska. If the Gophers are going to stop the run against Wisconsin, it starts with him.
Your final score prediction and MVP for the Gophers, please.
It’s funny, if you had asked me for a score prediction back when this game was originally scheduled, I would have predicted a blowout in favor of Wisconsin. Now I’m not so sure. It’s entirely possible the improvement the Gophers have shown in their last two games is a mirage and the struggles the Badgers have had in their last three games are the product of tough competition.
But you know what?
In this chaos season, I’m going to embrace that dangerous sense of optimism. I have Minnesota prevailing in a low-scoring border battle, 20-16. As for the MVP? I’m going with the Big Ten Running Back of the Year. Yes, against one of the best rushing defenses in college football. I’m throwing caution to the wind, hoping it doesn’t fly back in my face.