The No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers survived a tough test against Nebraska last week, and now they’re set up for a chance to win the Big Ten West title in Minnesota’s home stadium again. The only thing standing in their way is this road trip to Minneapolis and a battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Minnesota has title game aspirations themselves, but will need a bit more help, and would love to play spoiler regardless. Here is what Wisconsin needs to do to keep the Axe in its rightful home, and clinch a trip to Indianapolis once again.
Patience with the run game
Over the course of this Wisconsin football seven-game winning streak, you’ve seen the emergence of freshman RB Braelon Allen really take this running game to a new level and in turn, the offense has found its groove. Wisconsin has taken on some good run defenses over the course of this win streak, but this Minnesota group may be the best they have faced yet.
Coming into this week Minnesota is tied for No. 12 in terms of overall rushing defense. The team they are tied with? The Iowa Hawkeyes. By that metric, you can likely see how this game might go for the Badgers offensively. When you think back to the Iowa contest the Badgers did win by a good margin, but the run game was held somewhat in check. Allen was held scoreless and only racked up 104 yards on the ground. It’s not a bad day by any means, but compared to his gaudy numbers elsewhere it is clear he was slowed some.
That being said, I think you’ll see a Wisconsin team that is patient with their rushing attack again this week. There may not be busted runs for big yards from the jump like we saw last weekend, but it’s still going to be important to stick with it through the short carries.
We may see more two or three-yard cloud of dust runs, and that’s ok. In a cold, physical game like this I think Wisconsin will try to wear down this Minnesota front before eventually popping some runs or catching them being dishonest in their pass defense. Patience will be key from both the coaching staff and maybe, more importantly, the fans.
Make Tanner Morgan beat you
Coming into this game it’s clear what Minnesota likes to do, and that’s run the football. Despite multiple injuries in their running back room, the Gophers have stuck to running the game. Only Army, Navy, Air Force and North Texas have had more rushing attempts on the season than Minnesota. Sometimes that has worked, and sometimes it has not.
The trouble for Minnesota on Saturday afternoon is that they’ll be going up against the nation's top-run defense. Sure, the Badgers struggled against Nebraska but that was largely due to Adrian Martinez and his feet, something I don’t think Tanner Morgan can replicate.
Essentially, the Gopher offense will play right into the strength of this Badger defense. I believe the Badgers will take away the run against Minnesota and force quarterback Tanner Morgan to make throws to beat them. In their last two matchups, that has been the game plan, and it has worked for the Badgers.
Last year, the Badgers struggled to find pressure and still forced Morgan into some mistakes. The year before they got home for five sacks and completely shut down the Gopher attack and Morgan was forced to try and do it all himself. I believe you’ll see a similar game plan here in stopping the run and forcing consistent pressure to force Morgan into quick throws and hopefully some turnovers.
If the Badgers can stop the run and continually be in the face of Morgan as he tries to make up for the struggles I believe it could be a long day for the Minnesota offense.
Win the turnover battle
This has been a key for Wisconsin many times this season, but I think it will really ring true in this contest when playing in their most hostile environment of the season. Wisconsin has only had three true road games this year in Purdue, Illinois, and Rutgers which isn’t exactly a murders row of home crowds.
Minnesota will be a different story. The Badgers play on both sides of the football has all the ability to neutralize a crowd, but one thing can reignite them in a game like this, and that’s turnovers.
Wisconsin has been much better in the turnover department of late and is currently sitting at +16 in terms of margin over the course of this winning streak. Those extra possessions gained have been huge for the defense, and on the other side, the offense has done a much better job of taking care of the football themselves. In a hostile road environment like this keeping, that same recipe will be crucial.
Defensively, Wisconsin should have a game plan to force some errant throws, but if they turn around a few of their own it could be costly as you do not want to give Minnesota any sort of help with a short field. I believe this will be a slugfest type of contest, so keeping things clean once again will allow the Badgers to advance this win streak to eight games and keep the Axe in it’s rightful home.