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Wisconsin football: How you doing...Minnesota

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An overview of how Minnesota’s season has gone through 11 games.

Miami-Ohio v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Our “how you doing” feature is back for year three! Each week we at B5Q will review how each of Wisconsin’s opponents has fared heading into their contest with the Badgers.

After winning their seventh game in a row, and retaining the Freedom Trophy against Nebraska last weekend, the Wisconsin Badgers (8-3 overall, 6-2 Big Ten) will look to maintain control of Paul Bunyan’s Axe this weekend at Minnesota.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota
Senior Jake Ferguson and the Badgers will look to win Paul Bunyan’s Axe at TCF Bank Stadium once again.
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In an attempt to preview what to expect on Saturday, let’s take a look at how the Minnesota Gophers (7-4 overall, 5-3 B1G) have looked so far this season.

  • Loss vs. Ohio State 45-31
  • Win vs. Miami (OH) 31-26
  • Win at Colorado 30-0
  • Loss vs. Bowling Green 14-10
  • Win at Purdue 20-13
  • Win vs. Nebraska 30-23
  • Win vs. Maryland 34-16
  • Win at Northwestern 41-14
  • Loss vs. Illinois 14-6
  • Loss at Iowa 27-22
  • Win at Indiana 35-14

Status of the offense:

Overall, Minnesota ranks No. 79 in scoring offense at 26.4 points per game. They have not been an overly explosive offense, but they look to dominate time of possession and rank No. 23 in rushing and No. 117 in passing offense across FBS.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Iowa
Quarterback Tanner Morgan brings a wealth of experience to Minnesota’s offense.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

At quarterback, Minnesota has a longstanding starter in Tanner Morgan. He has not put up the same dazzling numbers as he did in 2019 but instead has become more of a game manager as the team relies on their ground attack. Morgan has still had his moments this year though, and he is a very capable passer. On the year, he is completing roughly 59% of his passes and has thrown for 1736 yards and nine touchdowns compared to seven interceptions.

Statistically, he and Graham Mertz have fairly similar numbers. Sophomore Cole Kramer has also earned snaps this season as a change of pace option, though he is primarily used as a running threat. Both quarterbacks are expected to see time on Saturday.

As I mentioned, Minnesota definitely leans on their rushing game. The Gophers have run the ball on 67.59% of their offensive snaps this year and have largely found success despite a slew of injuries in their running back room.

Star player Mo Ibrahim went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener versus Ohio State. Then backup Trey Potts took over as the workhorse back before going down with an injury against Purdue. Since then the duo of Ky Thomas and Mark-Kiese Irving have carried the load and ran well behind Minnesota’s offensive line.

The Gophers have five different ball carriers that have reached the century mark in a game this season, so regardless of who is carrying the ball, there is talent. Both Thomas and Irving are individually averaging around five yards per carry and each have more than 500 yards on the season.

Minnesota’s offensive line is the strength of their offense. An experienced group with a ton of size, they have done the dirty work to keep the Gopher’s offense humming this season. I would expect a very physical game that is won in the trenches considering how similar both teams want to win.

Out wide, the Gophers have a multiple receiving threats to keep an eye on, but Chris Autman-Bell is by far the top target. He leads the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. He is a player that the Wisconsin secondary will need to key on all game long. Beyond Autman-Bell four other receivers have at least 15 receptions and each has over 200 yards receiving. Mike Brown-Stephens and Dylan Wright have proven to be solid down field threats, while tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford and Daniel Jackson are more possession receivers this season.

Status of the defense:

The biggest reason behind Minnesota’s improvement from a year ago is on defense. The Gophers have a really good defensive line and have taken tremendous strides as an entire unit. Overall they rank No. 4 in total defense, and are within the top-15 nationally in both rushing and pass defense this season. While they have not gotten to the quarterback a lot, they are tough to score on, ranking No. 13 in the FBS allowing only 18.7 points per game.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Indiana
Boye Mafe leads the Gophers in sacks this season with six.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Up front the two players that have caused the most chaos are Boye Mafe and Thomas Rush. The two defensive linemen have combined for 11.5 sacks and have given the Gophers a solid one-two punch along the line. Nyles Pinckney is another name to know along Minnesota’s front.

Behind them, linebackers Jack Gibbens and Mariano Sori-Marin are neck and neck for the team lead in tackles with 76 and 75 apiece. Neither player has recorded a sack this year or have generated many splash plays, but they are tough against the run.

Safety Tyler Nubin is a key piece of the defense. He ranks third on the team in tackles and also leads the defense with three interceptions. Nubin has good size at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds which allows him to be an asset against the run and in coverage.

This is a Minnesota defense that is not loaded with star power players such as Antoine Winfield Jr, Kamal Martin, and Carter Coughlin like in 2019, but there is definitely talent and a toughness that make them very good.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Iowa
Minnesota has lost two of their last three games, but will have plenty to play for on Saturday.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Overall:

Minnesota has rebounded nicely since suffering a bad loss to Bowling Green. The Gophers have sputtered lately in Big Ten play, but, like the Badgers, they still have a chance to win the Big Ten West depending on how things shake out this weekend.

Wisconsin and Minnesota both want to run the ball and control the clock, while playing good defense. On paper the two teams are somewhat even in many key areas and statistically this should be a low-scoring affair based on the numbers.

The Badgers and Gophers are bitter rivals and there is a ton on the line for this game.

It’s Axe Week. Buckle up.