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Wisconsin football: key matchup to watch vs. Minnesota

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A look at one of the top matchups to watch on Saturday.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every college football Saturday is exciting as teams look for matchups to exploit in what traditionally is the game within the game for coaches and players alike.

This year we at B5Q will dive into one pivotal matchup to keep an eye on as the Wisconsin Badgers work their way through their non-conference and Big Ten portions of their 2021 football schedule.

While all of the various phases of a game are incredibly important, there are normally a few specific matchups that can make or break a game for a particular side. This weekly feature will highlight one of those matchups in greater detail as we preview the upcoming weekend.

With the final game of the regular season upon us, this week we focus on the trenches and the battle between Wisconsin’s offensive line and Minnesota’s front seven.

The case for Minnesota’s front seven

A quick glance at the raw statistics that Minnesota’s defense has put up this season and they are a very good group. The Gophers rank No. 4 (FBS) in total defense, No. 13 in scoring defense, and No. 12 in rushing defense, allowing just over 100 yards rushing per game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 Minnesota at Iowa
Seniors Boye Mafe (No. 34) and Esezi Otomewo (No. 9) are two of the Gophers top defensive linemen.

A big reason for Minnesota’s stout defense is their experienced front seven. Senior linebackers Jack Gibbens and Mariano Sori-Marin have been very good against the run and they are the top two tacklers on the team. Minnesota has multiple senior defensive linemen that they rotate through as well. While the sack numbers have not been overly impressive (they rank No. 86 in FBS at 1.9 per game) for this group, they have been tough against the run.

Over the past seven weeks, Wisconsin has done the majority of its damage on the ground, and one can assume that Minnesota has taken notice. I would expect that the Gophers will look to load the box in an attempt to stop Braelon Allen.

As mentioned, Minnesota has been very good against the run this year, but both Ohio State and Illinois found success with the run game. Ohio State ran for over 200 yards, while Illinois surpassed 180 yards. In both cases, the Gophers lost.

Minnesota’s front seven is talented and they know what is up for grabs this weekend. I would expect their best on Saturday.

The case for Wisconsin’s o-line

The Wisconsin offense has been rolling of late. The Badgers rank inside the top-10 nationally in rushing and a big reason for that is the play of the offensive line. Running back Braelon Allen is special, but the offensive line has improved since the first few games where they struggled against strong competition.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Wisconsin at Rutgers
Wisconsin’s offensive line has played very well the past few weeks.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The line is allowing under a sack per game and has the running game averaging over six yards per attempt the past three games. Credit Joe Rudolph and the starters for making the necessary adjustments, but Minnesota’s run defense is probably the best group they have seen since the Iowa game.

Wisconsin relies on the ground game, and it will paramount that they stay ahead of the chains against Minnesota. The Badgers have run into trouble on third down this season at times, so staying on schedule against a defense that has done a good job of limiting points will be big. The Gophers rank in the middle of the pack in opponent third-down conversion percentage at 36.5% and 43.2% in the last three games, so they do allow elongated drives at times.

The Badgers offensive line has found a solid starting five of Tyler Beach, Josh Seltzner, Joe Tippmann, Jack Nelson, and Logan Bruss. How that group handles Minnesota’s front seven will play a huge role in defining the game on Saturday and where the Axe ends up.