Nov. 29, 2016
It has all come down to this in the Big Ten West. The No. 6 Badgers come in at 9-2 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten, while the Gophers come in at 8-3 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten. Wisconsin has won 12 consecutive games in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s axe. It has also been a long road, but the Badgers have a chance to even the all-time series tomorrow. In last year’s meeting, Wisconsin knocked off Minnesota 31-21 in Minneapolis. In the last contest at Camp Randall Stadium, the Cardinal and White overcame a 17-3 deficit to defeat the Gophers 34-24 to win the Big Ten West and earn a berth in the conference championship game. Minnesota does not have a chance to play in Indianapolis, but could help Nebraska get to the Big Ten Championship game by beating Wisconsin if the Cornhuskers beat the Iowa Hawkeyes today. The Gophers had their most impressive performance of the season last Saturday with a 29-12 victory against Northwestern. This should be an interesting game between two of the top 30 scoring defenses in the country.
When Wisconsin runs the ball...
Wisconsin is running the ball well and has climbed up to No. 43 in rushing yards per game. The Badgers only averaged 3.9 yards per game against a terrible Purdue run defense, but that is because Wisconsin went ultra-conservative and ran it nearly every first down, despite having nine Boilermakers in the box. Bucky had 30 first down plays and ran it on 29 of them. Minnesota is 15th in the country in rush defense, allowing only 117 rush yards per game. Much of that is due to sacks, though. The Gophers have allowed at least four yards per carry to four of the last five starting running backs they have faced. Wisconsin will need to get the ground game going in order to move the ball. It all starts with the offensive line, which finally has some continuity after having injuries to start the year. Hopefully Chryst passes a bit more on first down this week to keep the defense honest.
When Wisconsin passes...
The Wisconsin quarterbacks each had a great game last Saturday, proving that if a team stacks the box daring the Badgers signal callers to beat them, Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook can do just that. The Purdue game plan was to stop the Wisconsin rushing attack by any means necessary. Purdue stacked the box and the Badgers quarterbacks combined to complete 12-of-15 passes for 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns. However, Minnesota’s defense is much better than Purdue’s. Teams have been able to pass the ball on the Gophers, though. Goldy is 75th in opposing passing yards per game. Wisconsin does not have a quarterback who will throw it for 250 yards, though they both have the potential to slice up the Gophers secondary. Another weapon for Minnesota is the pass rush. The Gophers have 33 sacks on the year, which is 16th in the country. However, 21 of those sacks are against Purdue, Rutgers, Oregon State and Northwestern. None of those teams are in the top 70 in sacks allowed and have a combined record of 13-31. Still, the Badgers have allowed 19 sacks on the season and the offensive line have to keep their quarterbacks clean to keep drives alive. Once again, the Badgers will need to make a few plays through the air to beat Minnesota and keep the axe.
When Minnesota runs...
This is a matchup of strength against strength. The Gophers rank just behind the Badgers in rush yards per game with 191.7. Minnesota has also rushed for 32 touchdowns on the year, which ranks eighth. However, of the 10 FBS teams Goldy has played so far, the Gophers have gone against just four teams that are single digits in opposing rush yards per game rankings. So, if you are not good at math, six teams are ranked 100+ in rush defense. Of the four teams Minnesota has played that are in the top 99, the Gophers are just 1-3. In the six games against the poor run defenses, Minnesota averages 212 rush yards per game and a 4.5-yard rushing average and 23 touchdowns. In the other four games, Goldy averages 137 yards per game and just 3.6-yard average and six rushing touchdowns. The top run defense Minnesota has played is Nebraska, which ranks 25th, and the Gophers had just 85 yards on the ground. Now, the Badgers run defense is a different animal. Wisconsin is ranked No. 5 in the country in rush yards per game against (98.3) and has only allowed six rushing touchdowns, which is tied for seventh in the country. The Badgers have also not allowed a rushing touchdown in any of the last three games. Nose tackle Olive Sagapolu was initially ruled out for this week on Monday, but returned to practice this week and appears close to returning. He was upgraded to questionable today, and there is a slight chance he could return this week, but most likely next week (if in the Big Ten title game) or the bowl game. Like many injuries for Wisconsin this year, the Badgers have not skipped a beat defensively in Sagapolu’s absence. Goldy will need to establish the ground game because if Wisconsin forces Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner to beat the Badgers through the air, the Gophers have no chance to pull the upset.
When Minnesota passes...
Despite the fact that NFL Draft “expert” Todd McShay called Leidner a first round prospect, he is a liability on offense for the Gophers. He leads a Minnesota passing attack that is ranked 101st in the country. Leidner has just thrown six touchdown passes on the year, and four of them came in one game against FCS foe Indiana State. In Big Ten competition, the Minnesota quarterback has just a 56 percent completion percentage and has thrown just two touchdown passes and seven interceptions. He has thrown at least one interception in six of his seven conference games. Few teams have as good or a better secondary than Wisconsin. The Badgers are 27th in opposing passing yards per game, but most of that is due to Bucky being in front so much that it forces opponents to throw to catch up. Wisconsin climbs up to No. 4 in opposing quarterback rating after picking off Purdue’s David Blough three times last Saturday. The Badgers have intercepted seven passes the last two games and will be looking for more. With the recent interception surge, Wisconsin has vaulted into a tie for fifth in the country with 17 picks on the season, as well as just seven touchdown passes allowed. If Leidner is forced to try and beat the Badgers, the Gophers are in trouble. Drew Wolitarsky is a solid wide receiver for Minnesota, having more than 700 yards receiving on 57 catches. The senior has only had two games in which he had fewer than 50 yards receiving. No other receiver has more than 21 catches on the season or 300 yards receiving. Wisconsin needs to put pressure on Leidner and not let him get too comfortable in the pocket.
If Minnesota wins the game, the Gophers will need a big day from their special teams. Whenever Goldy gets inside the 35, Minnesota’s Emmit Carpenter is automatic. The sophomore kicker is 20-for-22 with a long of 53 on the year. He has made 10 consecutive field goal attempts. Quite simply, he is one of the best kickers in college football. Andrew Endicott, on the other hand, is just 10-of-15 filling in for the injured Rafael Gaglianone. Both punters are below average, but the Gophers have the edge, as Wisconsin’s Andrew Lotti is last in the country in punting average. Minnesota has the edge in kick returning, but P.J. Rosowski is a huge weapon on special teams, as he is one of the best in the country at kicking touchbacks. The Badgers have a minor edge in punt returning, but overall, special teams is a huge Gophers edge.
I keep seeing stories about Wisconsin “not overlooking” Minnesota. Why would the Badgers take their biggest rival lightly? Bucky has too much to play for. The Badgers are playing for a date in the Big Ten Championship game and possibly getting one step closer to the College Football Playoff. It will come down to turnovers and giving the offense a short field. However, it will be tougher for the Gophers to move the football against the vaunted Badgers defense. If Minnesota struggles to run the football, Wisconsin will win handily. However, like with most upsets, the Badgers will need to take care of the football and keep Goldy from making plays via special teams.
Prediction: Wisconsin 20, Minnesota 6