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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Wisconsin - Opponent Preview

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The biggest game of the year is almost upon us

NCAA Football: Kent State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Well, here we are: Hate Week. College GameDay is headed to Minneapolis. The No. 8-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers and the No. 12-ranked Wisconsin Badgers will be playing for both Paul Bunyan’s Axe and a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship. The game is sold out. It doesn’t get much bigger than this.

Let’s get to it.

Are they any good this year?

2019 Record: 9-2 (6-2, 2nd B1G West)
S&P+ Ranking: 12th

Yes, but it has been a tale of two distinct halves for Wisconsin. The Badgers looked like one of the top teams in the country for the first six games of the season. Then came a last second loss to Illinois, before running into the freight train that is Ohio State. They are 3-0 since those back-to-back losses, but nothing has come easy for them.

Can they score on offense?

I can promise you this: The Badgers are going to run the ball, and Jonathan Taylor will get the bulk of the carries. He is one of the best running backs in the Big Ten and has rushed for at least 1,600 yards in each of the last three seasons. Taylor has only been held under 100 yards rushing in a game twice this season — and has rushed for at least 200 yards on four occasions — so the Gophers’ defensive front will have their work cut out for them. He is the type of back who thrives on making the first man and is tough to bring down once he gets out into the open field.

To spell Taylor, Wisconsin will run a fair amount of wildcat, with either running back Garrett Groshek or wide receiver Aron Cruickshank. Opposing defenses know exactly what the Badgers are going to do — run the ball — so their offense is predicated on elite blocking and misdirection. Minnesota will need to be very disciplined in their run fits on Saturday.

Taylor and co. will be operating behind a veteran offensive line that could be without starting left tackle Cole Van Lanen, who missed the Purdue game and is questionable for Minnesota as he recovers from a head injury suffered in practice a week ago.

The Badgers are solid but unspectacular through the air, led by junior quarterback Jack Coan. Wisconsin does not ask a lot of Coan, but he has been effective in a game manager role — completing 72.7 percent of his passes and throwing for 15 touchdowns compared to four interceptions — and has taken advantage of defenses stacking the box to stop Taylor.

He has a decent receiving corps, but it is difficult to gauge how good they are because they are very rarely called upon to be a difference maker in a game. Junior wide receiver Quintez Cephus is Coan’s top target, leading the team with 40 receptions for 606 receiving yards and five touchdowns. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see A.J. Taylor, Kendric Pryor, Danny Davis III, or tight end Jake Ferguson make an appearance for one or two key receptions.

Last year, the Gophers’ defensive game plan was to limit chunk plays on the ground and stifle Taylor enough to keep the Badgers from grinding out long scoring drives. It worked — Taylor only had two rushes of 15 yards or more and did not score a touchdown — and former Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook crumbled when the offense leaned on him to sustain drives, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble. Look for Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi to take a similar approach on Saturday. But I would say Coan is an improvement over Hornibrook, so the secondary will need to look sharp.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

The Badger defense that was turning heads at the start of the year, recording shutouts in four of their first six games, has proven mortal in the weeks since posting their last goose egg. After allowing an average of 4.8 points per game through those first six games, Wisconsin has allowed 25.8 points per game over their last five. They’ve especially struggled on the road, dropping games to Illinois and Ohio State and allowing Nebraska to rack up 493 yards of offense.

Wisconsin is also banged up on defense. Starting nose tackle Bryson Williams has missed their last three games with a leg injury and is not expected to play against Minnesota. Starting cornerback Faion Hicks is questionable after suffering a head injury against Purdue. And starting safety Collin Wilder is not injured but he will have to sit out the first half of Saturday’s game after being ejected for targeting in the second half against Purdue.

Even with Hicks and Wilder on the field, defending the pass has been a bit of a struggle for the Badgers in recent weeks. Purdue’s David Bell (12 receptions, 108 yards, 1 touchdown), Nebraska’s J.D. Spielman (4 receptions, 71 yards, 1 touchdown), and even Iowa’s Tyrone Tracy Jr. (5 receptions, 130 yards, 1 touchdown) have all made minced meat of Wisconsin’s defensive backs in the month of November already. Compounding the Badgers’ struggles in the secondary has been an inconsistent pass rush. Wisconsin relies heavily on linebackers Chris Orr (11 sacks) and Zack Baun (9.5 sacks) to dial up pressure on opposing quarterbacks. When they aren’t able to get home, big plays in the passing game are bound to happen.

Against the run, expect to see those same linebackers, plus sophomore Jack Sanborn, active. Wisconsin is generally strong against the run, allowing an average of 98.5 rushing yards per game. But they’ve been beset by poor tackling in recent weeks, allowing a team like Nebraska to rack up 273 yards on the ground. The Cornhuskers’ Dedrick Mills, who had only previously surpassed 100 rushing yards in one game all season, finished with 188 against the Badgers.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

The Badgers are 1-2 on the road in the Big Ten this season. Minnesota is 6-0 at home. Wisconsin has struggled to defend the pass. Minnesota has one of the best passing offenses in the country. To me, the biggest X factor is how the Gopher defense will fare against the Badgers’ rushing attack. Jonathan Taylor is going to get his yards, but can the Gophers limit chunk plays and keep Jack Coan on his heels? I think so. Minnesota 27, Wisconsin 20.