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Minnesota Football vs Wisconsin: Preview - Key Matchups

The Badgers are 8-3 thanks to an elite defense, but their offensive woes have made them vulnerable. Can the Gophers capitalize?

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In two of their past four games, the Badgers' leading rusher has been a wide receiver (Alex Erickson) or a linebacker (Joe Schobert). This is not the vaunted rushing attack that we've become accustomed to seeing out of Wisconsin, and a large part of that has been an inconsistent offensive line that has worsened with the loss of starting center Dan Voltz several weeks ago in their win over Illinois. According to S&P+, the Badgers' rushing offense ranks 86th in all of college football. For comparison, Kent State (123rd), Ohio (92nd), and Northwestern (91st) are the only opponents on the Gophers' schedule with a lower-ranked ground game. Not good.

It also hasn't helped that Corey Clement, the back-up last year to Melvin Gordon III and the man heralded as the next great Badger back, has had a miserable season. Due to a sports hernia that has hampered him since the opener against Alabama, Clement has been limited to participating in three games this season, including last week against Northwestern in which he rushed for 24 yards on 10 carries with 1 touchdown. Earlier this week, Clement was also cited for two counts of disorderly count stemming from an incident outside his apartment building a few weeks back. It is unclear if he'll be benched for the game on Saturday or if this will be a classic case of "internal discipline."

Junior Dare Ogunbowale has stepped in for Clement and been somewhat effective, rushing for 614 yards on 148 carries with 6 touchdowns. But with just one 100-yard rushing performance from Clement and two from Ogunbowale this season, the pressure has been on quarterback Joel Stave and the passing game to step up -- with mixed results. The Badgers' passing offense is ranked 43rd, per S&P+, so their offense hasn't been helpless when defenses have forced them to air it out. But over the past seven games, Stave has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns (3 TDs, 8 INTs), including five in the past three weeks alone. Stave's top target -- when not throwing to the other team -- has been senior wide receiver Alex Erickson, whom Gopher fans will no doubt remember from last year's 160-yard performance. He has put together a very solid year, with 66 receptions for 858 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Defensive Matchup To Watch: The Gophers' defensive line vs the Badgers' offensive line. It all starts up front. The Wisconsin offense hasn't been spectacular all season long and Minnesota needs to ensure that that continues. That means being solid against the run and also terrorizing Stave, forcing him into mistakes. According to ESPN, Stave is the worst quarterback in the Big Ten against the blitz, so look for the Gophers' defense to crank up the pressure. Minnesota can't allow Wisconsin to get into a rhythm, and it certainly can't afford to let Stave get comfortable in the pocket. I don't anticipate we'll see Steven Richardson back at defensive tackle, so Minnesota will need to see a strong performance from back-ups Andrew Stelter and Yoshoub Timms.

Now that you've read about the Badgers' much-maligned offense this season, you're probably wondering: How in the world is this Wisconsin team 8-3 with that offense? Because their defense is as good as the offense is bad. Per S&P+, the Badgers' defense is ranked 7th overall, 13th in rushing defense, and 16th in passing defense. Wisconsin also boasts the top scoring defense in the nation, allowing an average of 12.4 points per game. Even in losses to Iowa and Northwestern, the Badgers' defense allowed 10 and 13 points, respectively. Wisconsin has allowed just three teams this season to score two or more touchdowns in a game, and one of those teams was Alabama in the season opener.

The Badgers operate out of a base 3-4 defense, so their linebackers are a huge part of their success. Vince Biegel, Joe Schobert, and TJ Edwards are their leading tacklers and all names you'll be hearing early and often on Saturday. Biegel and Schobert, in particular, are the team's top two sack leaders, so expect to see them making their presence known in the backfield. Michael Caputo, the redshirt senior at safety, is the unquestioned captain of their defense. Redshirt senior safety Tanner McEvoy, the former failed quarterback experiment, is the closest thing their secondary has to a ball-hawking defensive back, with 4 interceptions on the season.

Obviously, the Gophers will have their work cut out for them on offense. Granted, an argument could be made that the Badgers haven't been challenged by a good offense since Week 1 against Alabama, but Minnesota hasn't exactly been setting the world fire on offense. They had success at home against Michigan, the 2nd-ranked defense in the nation according to S&P+, so I wouldn't be surprised to see them move the ball well against Wisconsin. Rodney Smith is expected back after struggling with an ankle injury the past few weeks, but even if he is limited, the Gophers also have an explosive back in Shannon Brooks. The passing offense took a bit of a step back last week against Illinois after a terrific four-game stretch, so we'll have to wait and see how Mitch Leidner and his receiving corps handle the challenge posed by the Badgers' defense.

Offensive Matchup To Watch: The Gophers' offensive line vs the Badgers' front seven. The Gophers need to be able to run the ball. The running game has been inconsistent all season long, even with Smith and Brooks in the backfield. It'll be tough sledding against a Badgers defensive front allowing an average of 102 rushing yards per game, but the Gophers need to get it done up front in order to win this game. As impressed as I've been with Mitch and the air attack in the latter half of the season, I don't think the passing game alone can beat Wisconsin. Minnesota needs to pound the rock.

The Gophers have a lot to play for on Saturday. It'll be Senior Day for Eric Murray, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, KJ Maye, Jon Christenson, and others -- their last game at TCF Bank Stadium, if not their careers at Minnesota. Jerry Kill will also be in attendance. With a win, the Gophers can also clinch a bowl game. Did I also mention that Paul Bunyan's Axe is on the line, with a chance to end an 11-game losing streak to the Badgers? There is a lot riding on this game, and the Gophers are not short on motivation. I think Tracy Claeys will have them ready to play. Will it be enough to bring back the Axe back to Minneapolis? We'll have to wait and find out.

Are there other matchups that you think could be the difference in this game?