Wisconsin football will meet Minnesota this weekend for a chance to try and retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe. To get you ready for the contest we asked our friends over at The Daily Gopher to help with a preview for the Gophers.
Last week, Minnesota lost their chances of the Big Ten West to the Iowa Hawkeyes. How are Gopher fans feeling about the season as a whole given that?
Frustrated and disappointed. Minnesota came into this season with the “Encore Four” — quarterback Tanner Morgan, running back Mohamed Ibrahim, wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, and center John Michael Schmitz — expected to lead their offense. The defense, a Top 10 unit a season ago, was a question mark, but quickly established themselves as one of the best in the Big Ten. The Gophers opened the season 4-0, capped by a definitive road win over Michigan State. The Big Ten West seemed to be theirs for the taking.
Then it all came crashing down. Too many mistakes and no Ibrahim cost them in a loss to Purdue. They got outplayed and outcoached by Illinois and Penn State. To their credit, Minnesota managed to regroup and give themselves an albeit slim shot at winning the division in November. Then they beat Iowa everywhere but the scoreboard, which is the only thing that matters in the end. Most fans view this season as a huge missed opportunity for P.J. Fleck, who has yet to win the West in six years at the helm.
Offensively Minnesota has an absolute monster in Mohamed Ibrahim. How good has he been this year coming back from a tough injury last year?
He is in the conversation for the best running back to ever wear the maroon and gold. Ibrahim already owns the single-season program record for rushing touchdowns (19) and needs only 106 rushing yards to break David Cobb’s single-season record. He is also the program leader in career rushing touchdowns (52) and needs only 128 yards to surpass Darrell Thompson’s career mark.
Naturally, fans have spent more oxygen this season complaining about the lackluster passing game than expressing awe in Ibrahim’s production week in and week out. I really hope they are able to appreciate what he has done on the field for this program, especially this season. Watching him, you would never know he suffered an Achilles tendon tear a year ago. Ibrahim has looked as good as ever. His vision, his patience, and his ability to fight through contact have all been on display this season.
Badger fans are used to seeing Tanner Morgan in this game but it does not look like he will be out there on Saturday. What can you tell us about the Gopher quarterback room heading into this game?
Yes, Tanner Morgan suffered a concussion in Week 7 against Illinois and then suffered what appeared to be another concussion in Week 10 against Nebraska. He has not played since, and redshirt freshman quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis has started the last three games for Minnesota. He is the most physically gifted quarterback the program has had in years, but he is an inexperienced freshman who makes freshman mistakes at times. Kaliakmanis is much more athletic than Morgan, which allows him to escape pressure and extend plays. But he has a bad habit of looking for the home run play when only a single or double is needed to move the chains.
This Gopher defense looks incredibly strong once again. How have they been able to be so productive this season?
There are no stars on this defense. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They are at their best when they are communicating with each other and playing as a unit. Their goal is to limit explosive plays and force offenses to nickel and dime their way down the field. This defense has also been outstanding at getting off the field on third down, but that is also a product of how well they play on first and second down. They know their best recipe for success is to force offenses to try and convert on third and long.
The strength of the defense is in the secondary. Cornerback Terell Smith and safeties Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden are the senior leaders. Nubin is the free safety they trust to play center field and make plays on the ball.
What do you think are the main things Minnesota needs to do to come away with the Axe on Saturday?
Defensively, they need to pressure Graham Mertz. The glaring weakness of this defense has been their inability to consistently generate a pass rush. Say what you want about Mertz’s issues, but if you give him enough time in the pocket, he can make throws to move the chains. I’m fairly confident the Gophers will be able to limit the Badgers’ ground game, but they can’t afford to sit back and wait for Mertz to make a mistake in the passing game. They need to force the issue and make him uncomfortable in the pocket.
Offensively, we’ll see how Kaliakmanis handles the aggressiveness of the Badgers’ defense. We all know their linebackers are going to be pinning their ears back trying to rattle the redshirt freshman quarterback. To his credit, he has been fairly difficult to rattle, but it could only take one or two catastrophic mistakes to turn the tide of the game. Minnesota needs Kaliakmanis to be poised and mistake-free.
I’ve got Minnesota retaining the Axe by a score of 21-14. Ibrahim and the offensive line are playing their best football of the season right now, rolling up 300+ rushing yards in back-to-back games. I think that will give them the edge over Wisconsin.