It's the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe week for fierce border rivals the Wisconsin Badgers and the Minnesota Golden Gophers. These two teams have met 131 times, with Minnesota leading the overall series 62-61-8, including a 23-13 victory last season in Minneapolis. The last five meetings have reflected the evenness of this rivalry, as the Badgers have won three out of the last five contests.
Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) locked down bowl eligibility for the 21st straight season as the Badgers rallied from a 14-3 fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Nebraska 15-14 and retain control of the Freedom Trophy. The win appears to be enough to all but secure the head coaching job for interim head coach Jim Leonhard, who has injected plenty of energy back into the program after the Badgers were not playing up to their standard under former head coach Paul Chryst in the first few weeks. It was a true test of Wisconsin's ability to overcome adversity, as the weather was tough to deal with in Lincoln, which affected both offenses. Losing linebacker Nick Herbig to a targeting penalty and star running back Braelon Allen to a right leg injury late in the game tested this team's resilience in the face of adversity. The team passed that test thanks to a combination of 235 rushing yards and limiting the Cornhuskers to 171 yards of total offense.
Minnesota (7-4, 4-4) dropped another defensive slugfest as they lost 13-10 to Iowa last Saturday afternoon at Huntington Bank Stadium. After the Hawkeyes jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, the Gophers' defense settled in and kept them in the game as they held Iowa scoreless until late in the fourth quarter, when Drew Stevens hit a 21-yard field goal with 28 seconds left. The Golden Gophers' inability to play clean enough football — with two crucial second-half turnovers — cost them and wasted a 263-yard rushing performance by Mohamed Ibrahim, who earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors as a result.
Minnesota at Wisconsin
When Minnesota Has the Ball
Finding a way to get consistency in the passing game has been an issue for head coach P.J. Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca ever since quarterback Tanner Morgan's upper-body injury. Redshirt Freshman Athan Kaliakmanis completed seven of 15 passes for 87 yards and an interception in his third career start. On the surface, it's understandable to protect Kaliakmanis with the weather being under 20 degrees and facing a rugged defense like Iowa. However, at some point, the coaches need to put the ball in the hands of Kaliakmanis and give him easy throws to keep the Badgers' defense off balance. Daniel Jackson and Brevyn Spann-Ford must catch a combined eight passes or more this week if the Golden Gophers are going to get the job done and keep the Axe in Minneapolis.
Wisconsin is going to dare Minnesota to throw the football to beat them, as there is no need to implement any other strategy on defense this week, even with Herbig out for the first half of the game. The Badgers have done very well against the pass and are limiting teams to 191.6 yards per game this season. Stopping the run hasn't been an issue for this defense, either, as they have allowed just 103.7 yards per game. They will see a heavy dose of Ibrahim, and even if they allow him to run for around 120 yards, that won't cost them this week. The big thing they can't allow to happen is for Ibrahim to go off for over 250 yards and set up the Golden Gophers to wear down the Wisconsin defense.
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
Graham Mertz's two best performances in 2022 have been against Northwestern and Purdue. Mertz completed a combined 33 of 50 passes for 592 yards, seven touchdowns, and zero interceptions. That is, for the most part, the efficiency that you come to expect from the quarterback position in the program. Unfortunately for Mertz, those two games are statistical outliers, which is one key reason why the Badgers are 6-5. The objective for Mertz this week is twofold. First, don't turn the football over, as he has thrown three interceptions in the past two games. The second is to find a way to create at least three to four explosive plays.
Minnesota's rugged defense must take advantage of Mertz's inconsistent throwing and come up with at least a couple of turnovers to create great field position for their offense. They also must keep the Badgers' running game in check on first and second down to create those invaluable long-yardage situations for their defense. The Golden Gophers have been great on third down defensively, as opponents have converted just 25.6 percent of the time. If they don't slow down the Wisconsin running game, they are in trouble.
This is a tricky game because if Morgan were to return from injury, it would give Minnesota more balance on offense. If he doesn't play and Kaliakmanis starts, it'll be a quickly played, low-scoring affair since both teams will run the ball a ton. If Wisconsin permanently hires Leonhard before the game on Saturday morning, the Badgers should start hot. After the emotion of that wears off, the game will settle in and become a defensive slugfest, with the Badgers winning by one score and elevating the quality of their bowl game.
Prediction: Wisconsin 17, Minnesota 13
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– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.
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