Season Record: 11-0 (8-0 B1G)
Head Coach: Paul Chryst (32-6, 3rd year at Wisconsin)
2017 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 4th
2016 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 11th
The Wisconsin Badgers are 11-0 for the first time in their program’s history and have clinched the Big Ten West, securing a spot in the conference championship opposite Ohio State. If the Badgers can defeat the Gophers and the Buckeyes, they’ll almost certainly be in the College Football Playoff, despite a lackluster schedule that hasn’t provided much of a challenge up to this point. But standing between Wisconsin and a perfect regular season are the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who haven’t laid hands on Paul Bunyan’s Axe since the year that Facebook was launched, Friends ended, and George W. Bush was re-elected president.
Will this year be the year the Gophers break the streak and restore the Border Battle to some semblance of a rivalry? Probably not, but let’s pretend it’s a possibility.
You might want to sit down for this shocking news: The Badgers are good at running the football. Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor is a stud. With 238 carries for 1,657 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, he is averaging a staggering seven yards per carry. Taylor is a patient runner who has the vision to follow his blockers and find holes as they develop. Combine that with the strength to fight for extra yards and the speed to blow by defenders who are out position, and you have a complete back. He will be a problem for the next couple years.
Sophomore running back Bradrick Shaw (93 carries, 359 rushing yards, 4 touchdowns) will get a handful of carries when Taylor needs a breather on the sidelines. But walk-on redshirt freshman Garrett Groshek, a converted quarterback, has also made an impression on the Badgers. Groshek is a tough runner who has been forced into action largely due to injuries, but he has made the most of it, rushing for 257 yards on 51 carries with two touchdowns.
The Badgers’ rushing attack has also benefitted from an offensive line that has been re-built under head coach Paul Chryst. Led by third-year starters and redshirt juniors Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel, this relatively young but experienced group has improved from averaging 150.3 rushing yards in 2015 to paving the way for 239.3 rushing yards per game this year. Chryst started one senior and four redshirt freshmen on the offensive line, and the Badgers are now reaping the rewards after taking their lumps.
Because of the nature of their offense, the Badgers don’t ask a lot of their sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook. He has thrown at least one interception in all but two games this season, but he has also passed for at least one touchdown in all but one game this season. Hornibrook has also only attempted more than 24 passes in just one game. His top target, sophomore Quintez Cephus, has been lost for the season after leading the team with 30 receptions, 501 receiving yards, and six touchdowns. But the Badgers love their tight ends, so watch out for senior Troy Fumagalli (36 receptions, 460 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns).
Sophomore wide receiver A.J. Taylor has stepped up in the absence of Cephus, recording three receptions, 79 receiving yards, and one touchdown against Michigan last week.
Verdict: The Gopher defense has allowed at least 245 rushing yards to four opponents this season — Michigan State (245), Maryland (262) Northwestern (277), and Michigan (371). Wisconsin is averaging 239.3 rushing yards per game. If the Gophers are able to hold the Badgers below 300, I’ll consider it a small but meaningless victory.
I’ll be blunt: I don’t expect Minnesota to have much success against this defense.
The Badgers are the top-ranked rushing defense in the country, and much of the credit belongs to their linebackers. Even with senior team captain Jack Cichy lost for the season after his tearing his ACL during the preseason, the Wisconsin linebacker corps hasn’t missed a beat. The stalwarts have been redshirt juniors Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards, both of whom have the athleticism and instincts to play sideline-to-sideline. Junior Chris Orr is questionable for Saturday against Minnesota, but the Badgers have the depth to withstand that potential loss. Senior linebacker Garretty Dooley leads the team with 7.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss.
Wisconsin operates out of a base 3-4 defense, so the success of their linebackers is predicated on the ability of the defensive line to free them up to make plays. Senior defensive ends Alec James and Conor Sheehy have certainly done their part to eat up blocks and make plays, combining for seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. James is a converted linebacker who has elevated his game from a pass rush specialist to a game changer on the defensive line, having added 45 pounds to his frame to help improve his striking ability against the run.
Unfortunately for the Gophers, the Badgers are also tough against the pass, allowing an average of 167 passing yards per game. This is also an opportunistic secondary that has reeled in 15 interceptions, which is tied for 10th most in the country. The secondary’s leading tackler, redshirt junior safety D’Cota Dixon, is questionable for Saturday with a right leg injury, but senior safety Natrell Jamerson has acquitted himself well at the other safety position with nine pass break-ups and two interceptions. Wisconsin also has a pair of playmakers at cornerback in senior Derrick Tindal and redshirt junior Nick Nelson, who provided a boost for the Badgers against Michigan last week with a 50-yard punt return for a touchdown.
And the Badgers are almost certain to terrorize Gopher quarterback Demry Croft when he drops back to pass. Their pass rush is averaging 3.36 sacks per game, and they have at least a dozen players with at least one sack on the season. Wisconsin’s linebackers have accounted for more than 50 percent of their sacks, so expect defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to dial up blitzes and take advantage of an outmanned Minnesota offense line.
Verdict: Minnesota failed to muster a single score against the 30th-ranked scoring defense in the nation last week. This week, the Gophers will face the second-ranked scoring defense in the nation. Put simply, I don’t like their chances of being anywhere near the end zone.
Prediction: Wisconsin will win. It won’t be close.