Here we are again. Another year, another chance to seize Paul Bunyan’s Axe and end what has become a mind-numbing losing streak. Is this the year the Minnesota Golden Gophers make this border battle a legitimate rivalry again?
Are they any good this year?
Record: 7-4 (5-3, 2nd B1G West)
S&P+ Overall Ranking: 19th
Of course you remember. Because that ranking set the stage for perhaps the most disappointing season in program history. Well, disappointing for the Badgers and their fans, I should say. Everyone else... Not so much. Wisconsin held that Top 10 ranking for all of two weeks before a shocking 24-21 loss at home to BYU. The Badgers attempted to steer the ship back on course with back-to-back wins over Iowa and Nebraska, but it was not meant to be. Road losses to Michigan, Northwestern, and Penn State effectively torpedoed any shot at a playoff berth and cost them the Big Ten West crown. A truly unfortunate turn of events for the Badger faithful.
Can they score on offense?
There is one name to remember, and I’m certain you already know it: Jonathan Taylor. The sophomore running back is one of the best in the nation at his position and serves as the engine that drives the Badgers’ offense. Taylor leads the country in rushing yards (1,869) and has accounted for 15 touchdowns this season. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in all but one game so far. Containing him will be a challenge for the Minnesota defense, but letting him run wild — as Purdue did a week ago, to the tune of 321 rushing yards and three touchdowns — is an almost certain recipe for defeat. Wisconsin will complement him with either senior Taiwan Deal or sophomore Garrett Groshek, although the former was sidelined last week with a hamstring injury.
I’m not certain who we will see under center for the Badgers on Saturday. Junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook has missed three of their last four games due to concussions, and sophomore Jack Coan has started in his place. Hornibrook was solid to start the season but struggled down the stretch, throwing six interceptions in his last three games combined. Coan has been something of a mixed bag in his three starts, averaging 163 passing yards per game and completing 60 percent of his passes as a starter. But his decision-making has been suspect at times and explosive plays in the passing game have been few and far between.
Whoever is taking snaps will look to connect with wide receivers A.J. Taylor (29 receptions, 495 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns) and Danny Davis III (30 receptions, 325 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns). And as per usual, Wisconsin has a talented tight end in the form of freshman Jake Ferguson (29 receptions, 395 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns). Neither of those three is much of a big play threat — the Badgers rank 80th in IsoPPP+ (a measure of explosiveness on offense), according to S&P+ — so the Gophers’ secondary will simply need to avoid blown assignments.
Wisconsin’s highly-touted offensive line has, for the most part, lived up to the billing in terms of opening up gaping holes for Taylor, but the unit has not been as strong in their pass blocking. And the Badgers could be without the services of starting right tackle David Edwards, who did not play against Purdue last week with a left arm injury.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
The good news is this is not one of the elite Badger defenses that the Gophers have faced in recent years, but Wisconsin is good enough on that side of the ball to present a formidable challenge for the Minnesota offense. The make-up of the unit is less than ideal, considering there are as more underclassmen starters than there are upperclassmen starters.
It should come as no surprise, but most of the upperclassmen on defense can be found at linebacker. We’re all familiar with T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, but Andrew Van Ginkel has been coming on strong of late and leads the team in sacks with 4.5. Just last week against Purdue, Van Ginkel recorded a career-high 10 tackles, two sacks, and one forced fumble. Operating out of a base 3-4 defense, the Badgers lean heavily on their linebackers, both in pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run. Wisconsin has been inconsistent at the latter, allowing at least 180 rushing yards in all four of their losses this season.
Conversely, the Badgers are very green in the secondary, with redshirt senior D’Cota Dixon representing the lone upperclassman among the starters. He is surrounded by a true freshman and a pair of redshirt freshman in the defensive backfield. But surprisingly, the Wisconsin defense seems to have fared better against the pass than against the run, limiting opponents to 207.8 passing yards per game — good enough to rank fifth in the Big Ten.
Minnesota will need to establish the run, which is not something they’ve to able to do on a consistent basis, and use play-action to try and carve up the Badgers’ secondary.
Some good news for the Gophers, who struggled to finish drives in Northwestern territory a week ago: The Badgers have not been great inside the red zone. Opposing offenses have scored on 84.2 percent of their red zone attempts when facing Wisconsin.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
I wish this game were in Minneapolis. The Badgers are 5-1 at home this season but 2-3 on the road. Conversely, the Gophers are also 5-2 at home but 0-4 on the road. Not to mention the fact that this year’s Wisconsin team is the most vulnerable they’ve ever been in the Paul Chryst era. But Minnesota (or at least their fans) can’t keep hoping to catch Wisconsin in a down year. At a certain point, they simply have to be better than the Badgers. Alas, I do not believe that to be the case this year. Sigh... Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17.