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Minnesota Football at Wisconsin: Leidner May Be Key to Gophers Chances to Win

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Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday's Big Ten West Division deciding game is full of a number of intriguing stories.  The fact that it is the nation's longest consecutive rivalry game played always makes this an intriguing game.  In fact one might argue that this is a passionate rivalry playing for the coolest rivalry trophy in all of college football.  That has typically always been enough to make this a game we all look forward to.  And now there is actually something on the line.  Winner moves on to Indianapolis and the Big Ten Championship Game.

Badger's coach Gary Andersen took some of the focus away from the game by creating a new Axe policy which created AxeGate2014.  But I'd like to re-focus back on to the game at hand.  Even within the game there are a number of intriguing match-ups and storylines.

Melvin Gordon is probably the nation's premier tailback and he gets a lot of help from what is a very good offensive line.  Minnesota has a pretty good running back of their own who might be the nation's most underrated runningback.  For the Gophers slowing down Gordon is kind of important.  He has three consecutive games of 200 yards or more and the two prior to that were such blowouts that the only thing keeping him from 200 in those games was a lack of carries.  But even in their conference loss to Northwestern, Gordon was piling up a ton of yards.  Stopping him is important but maybe not the #1 key to a Gopher victory.

Both of these teams have pretty good defenses as well.  Wisconsin graduated a ton of starters from last year's very good defense, but they still managed to put together a unit that is one of the nation's best.  Minnesota has been pretty good on that side of the ball as well, in fact it is kind of what has carried them and gotten them in position to be playing on the last week of the season for something meaningful.  Both defenses will be tested and are going to be important to Saturday's result.

But I will make the argument that the number one factor, at least for the Gophers, is going to be the play of Mitch Leidner.  When Leidner is playing well the Gophers have been pretty good and hard to beat.  When he struggles, it makes it very difficult for Minnesota to have a balanced offense.  When comparing the two running backs, the advantage clearly goes to Melvin Gordon.  When comparing the defenses..advantage Wisconsin.  The Gophers are going to need Leidner to be on his game.

Take a look at Leidner's number in losses compared to how well he has played in wins (including only Big Ten games and TCU).

Comp % Avg Yds TD INTs
Wins 60% 152 7 1
Losses 41.3% 158 1 6 (+ 2 lost fumbles)

Accuracy, touchdowns and interceptions are pretty dramatic differences wouldn't you say?  Not much is typically asked of Leidner.  Around 20 pass attempts, completing more than he doesn't and not turning the ball over is what is expected.  There are going to be key moments when Leidner needs to complete a pass or two to keep drives alive and give us a chance at points.  Yards are not all that meaningful through the air, the passing game is important for keeping the defense on it's heals a little bit and opening up the ground game.

Similar things can be said for Wisconsin's Joel Stave.  His three picks and 42% completion against Northwestern was key to their only conference loss.  Not much is required of him either but if he plays poorly, the Gophers might be in great position to get their biggest win in decades.

We don't need a 250 yard game from Leidner to win this game.  We don't need him to carry the team on his back.  We need him to complete passes when it matters.  We need him to be accurate.  We need him to keep the ball in our possession.  We also need him to make good decisions in the read-option and his legs may be just as important as David Cobb's.

We need to play well in all phases.  The kicking game is important.  The defense is important.  David Cobb's gimpy hammy is going to be a factor.  But Mitch Leidner needs to be the leader of this Gopher offense, he is the key to a Gopher win on Saturday.