Minnesota and Wisconsin have met 123 previous times on the gridiron, but Saturday’s matchup in Madison could be one of the biggest in the history of this annual Big Ten rivalry. The Golden Gophers and Badgers are not only playing for the coveted Paul Bunyan’s Axe, but a trip to the Big Ten title game is also up for grabs. The winner of Saturday’s game will claim the West Division title.
Minnesota has made steady progress in four years under coach Jerry Kill. With a victory over Wisconsin or in the bowl game, the Golden Gophers will increase their win total for three consecutive seasons after going 3-9 in Kill’s debut. Minnesota lost to TCU in non-conference play earlier this year, but the Golden Gophers were defeated by Illinois and Ohio State by a combined 11 points. On the other sideline, Wisconsin enters this matchup with six consecutive victories. The Badgers lost 20-14 to Northwestern in early October but rebounded by claiming five of those wins by at least 10 points.
Minnesota owns a 59-56-8 series edge over Wisconsin. However, this rivalry has been a one-sided affair in recent years. The Badgers have claimed 10 in a row over the Golden Gophers, including four consecutive games by at least 13 points.
Minnesota at Wisconsin
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Wisconsin -14
Minnesota’s Key to Victory: Stop Melvin Gordon
Those three words – stop Melvin Gordon – sound really simple. But one look at the stat sheet shows how difficult that has been for opposing teams in 2014. The junior is making a run at the record books with 2,109 yards and 25 touchdowns on 254 attempts. Gordon averages 213.9 rushing yards in conference-only matchups and has not been held below 200 over his last three games. Minnesota’s rush defense is allowing 167.9 yards per game on the ground in conference action. The Golden Gophers held Nebraska to 174 last week but allowed 289 to Ohio State on Nov. 15. In last year’s meeting, Minnesota gave up 197 yards and one score to Wisconsin’s rushing attack. Make no mistake: The Badgers and Gordon are going to get their yards on the ground. However, Minnesota needs to limit the damage and prevent Gordon from breaking big plays.
Wisconsin’s Key to Victory: Limit Turnovers
Minnesota running back David Cobb is questionable due to a hamstring injury. Cobb is the team’s leading rusher this season with 1,430 yards and 12 scores, and if he can’t go, it’s a huge loss for the offense. Quarterback Mitch Leidner is second on the team with 408 yards, with Berkley Edwards, Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood the next in line as options at running back. Considering Minnesota could be shorthanded at running back, combined with Leidner’s inconsistent play under center, it’s important for Wisconsin to not give the Golden Gophers any advantage in the turnover department. Minnesota ranks second in the Big Ten with 27 forced turnovers and a +11 margin. The Badgers cannot afford to give a shorthanded offense any short fields on Saturday afternoon.
The breakdown of this game seems pretty simple: Wisconsin has a better defense and rushing attack. If the Badgers establish the run and manages to limit the success of Minnesota’s rushing attack, Wisconsin will pull away in the second half. Leidner’s ability to make plays on the ground could be a huge boost to the Golden Gophers’ upset hopes. On the Badgers’ sideline, Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy will each see time, and both need to limit their mistakes against an opportunistic defense. Minnesota finds a way to keep this game close into the third quarter. However, Wisconsin is simply a better team, and Gordon clinches the game in the fourth quarter with another huge second-half effort.