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Wisconsin vs. Minnesota Preview: Will the Badgers reclaim the Axe?

The Badgers are looking to end an uneven season on a high note.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers are set to face off against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the season finale, hoping to reclaim the Axe Trophy, while keeping the latter away from bowl eligibility.

Fresh off a 24-17 comeback overtime victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Badgers, sitting at 6-5, including 4-4 in conference play, are hoping to end an uneven season on a high note.

DraftKings Sportsbook currently has the Badgers as 2.5-point favorites over Minnesota, with the over/under set at 42.5 points.

To preview this matchup, we paired with GopherHole’s Noel Thompson, who asked a set of questions ahead of the weekend bout.

Preview

Q: The Badgers had quite the year last year. After a 2-3 record after five games, Wisconsin decided to part ways with Paul Chryst, who was in his eighth season in Madison. Jim Leonhard was tapped as interim, and he would lead the Badgers to become bowl-eligible. Wisconsin finished the 2022 year with an overall record of 7-6 and 4-5 in Big Ten play. On November 21st, Wisconsin named Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell as the team’s new head coach. What were the expectations for this team heading into the 2023 season? Have they met those expectations? How would you grade Luke Fickell’s first season as head coach?

A: As the season nears an end, I would say that the Badgers underwhelmed in 2023, even though they claimed bowl eligibility. There were high standards for the Badgers entering the season, given the weaker schedule, the influx of talent, and Fickell’s pedigree as a coach. However, rather than competing for the Big Ten West title, the Wisconsin Badgers have been stuck in mediocrity, notching some nice wins, but also having some ugly losses on their resume this season.

As for Fickell, I would grade his first season as a C-. Now, I have full faith that Fickell is the guy going forward and you can see the difference with the way that he’s been able to recruit, but to say that he expected a 6-5 start with losses to Indiana and Northwestern would be untrue.

Now, a ton of the Badgers’ issues have been execution-related, but when execution is a recurring issue, it falls on the coaching staff to get things right. Discipline and slow starts have plagued the Badgers as well throughout the season, which are also reflected on the coaching staff. There’s been good, such as the team’s victory over Nebraska, but it’s been an underwhelming year 1.

Q: One big move Luke Fickell made was to hire Phil Longo as the new offensive coordinator. Longo worked under Mack Brown at North Carolina for the last couple of years after he was successful at Ole Miss. Longo’s offense historically has Air Raid roots. So far this season, Wisconsin is averaging 22.4 points per contest while averaging 366 yards per game. What is the strength of this offense? Where do you see areas in need of improvement?

A: The offense under Phil Longo has been up-and-down in Year 1 as the Badgers have transitioned to the Air Raid scheme. Now, the Badgers aren’t throwing the ball 100% of the time; they’re looking to find a balance between the run and the pass that involves getting the ball to their playmakers as much as possible, but there’ve been obstacles along the way.

First, they lost running back Chez Mellusi, their change-of-pace back and the best fit to Longo’s scheme at running back, to a season-ending injury. Then, they lost quarterback Tanner Mordecai for a month, while key players like Braelon Allen and Chimere Dike have battled injuries.

But, I think the run schemes are working well for Longo. They’re creative and you can see the vision from Longo when they play out on film, although execution has been an issue at times. The run game worked well at the beginning of the season, and had some life last week upon Allen’s return against a tough run defense. Another factor that has worked well has been the up-tempo offense.

When the Badgers are in a rhythm and moving quickly, Tanner Mordecai is at his best. What hasn’t worked as well is the short-distance situations. With Longo, the Badgers have almost-exclusively run out of shotgun, which has a huge impact on short third and fourth downs, where the Badgers have been inconsistent all season.

Additionally, the Badgers have a serious penalty issue, which has killed several drives for the Badgers on offense, as Longo’s scheme isn’t designed for chunk plays in the air this season.

Q: The Badgers defense ranks eighth in the Big Ten conference in allowing 335.5 yards per game. They are allowing 19.4 points per game, which ranks seventh in the Big Ten. The defense no longer has Jim Leonhard leading it; now comes Mike Tressel. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this defense? How would you grade Tressel’s first year leading the defensive unit?

A: The defense has been a whirlwind this season as well in the transition from Jim Leonhard to Mike Tressel. The strengths of this defense comes from one specific player, Hunter Wohler, who has found ways to make plays at all levels of the defense. However, he is currently questionable for this weekend’s matchup.

Additionally, I do think defensive coordinator Mike Tressel found his footing in last week’s game with good playcalling, which will be vital with the personnel that Wisconsin carries into its final game. The weakness for the defense is their discipline: they’re not great at tackling and don’t align in their gap responsibilities enough, allowing chunk plays. The defense has also struggled with their pass rush at times this season.

Q: Wisconsin is coming off a huge overtime victory last week over Nebraska. Braelon Allen scored two touchdowns for the Badgers, but Allen wasn’t expected to play, according to Luke Fickell. Allen finished the game with 62 yards on 22 carries. It sounds like Allen is still banged up a bit from an injury he sustained against Ohio State. Do you expect Allen to play this Saturday? Are there any other players who could miss the game due to injury?

A: I do expect Allen to play, but he likely won’t be 100% yet after the high-ankle sprain he sustained against Ohio State. However, the Badgers do have a number of injury issues at the moment. Star safety Hunter Wohler is questionable after he was hurt in the first half against Nebraska and didn’t return. Top wideout Will Pauling suffered a lower body injury late in the fourth quarter and did not return as well, while starting receiver Bryson Green didn’t play at all against Nebraska. These are the three key injuries Wisconsin is battling at the moment.

Q: What impact players should Minnesota fans know about heading into the game this Saturday? What players do you think need to step up to bring the Axe back to Madison?

A: It starts at the head of the snake with quarterback Tanner Mordecai. While the box scores haven’t been pretty this year, the Badgers won’t win unless Mordecai finds ways to make plays to extend drives, which was on display on Saturday against Nebraska. Defensively, Ricardo Hallman has been a ballhawk this year at cornerback, despite his size, playing the field side well. Then, if they’re able to suit up, Wisconsin’s best offensive and defensive players are Will Pauling and Hunter Wohler, who have each been fantastic this year.

Q: The Minnesota and Wisconsin rivalry is the nation’s most-played rivalry in Division 1 FBS football. In my opinion, it features one of the best trophies in the nation, Paul Bunyan’s Axe. This will be the 133rd meeting between the teams. The series is tied 62-62-8 heading into this Saturday. Minnesota has won the last two games over the Badgers—the first time they have done that since the early 90’s. The last time Minnesota won three straight over their rivals was back in the late 1980s, when they won four in a row. The Badgers enter this Saturday as two-point favorites over Minnesota. What does Wisconsin need to do to reclaim the axe in Minneapolis this Saturday? What is your prediction for the game?

A: I’ve been more pessimistic on the Badgers for three consecutive weeks, betting against them on the spread, although I expected them to beat Nebraska in a close contest. After two consecutive losses in the rivalry, Wisconsin enters this one with a ton on the line, as Minnesota is still vying for a bowl game. There are inherent flaws with both teams, as I don’t have much confidence in quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, although the Gophers sport a good rushing attack, which has been an issue for the Badgers defense at times. I don’t expect too much of a high scoring contest in this one, but could very well see some chunk plays that lead to opportunities. I’ll lean Wisconsin on the spread as two-point favorites on the road here.

Score Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Minnesota 20