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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Wisconsin - Opponent Preview

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Re-claiming the Axe will be much easier said than done

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-3) will not be traveling to Camp Randall on Saturday to battle the Wisconsin Badgers (2-1) for the right to wield Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

But I wrote a preview before the decision was made to cancel the game.

So here it is.

How have the Badgers fared so far this season?

Wisconsin made quick work of Illinois in their season opener before a COVID-19 outbreak put their season on pause for two weeks. To their credit, the Badgers didn’t seem to miss a beat when they were able to return to action against Michigan. But the good times stopped rolling in Week 5, when unbeaten Northwestern bested them in Evanston and took control of the Big Ten West.

Can Wisconsin score on offense?

The Badgers’ offense was firing on all cylinders against Illinois and Michigan, even with a two-week break in between games, before Northwestern’s suffocating defense forced five turnovers and allowed a first quarter touchdown before pitching a shutout in the final three quarters.

True freshman Jalen Berger has started to separate himself from the pack, but the Badgers have largely relied upon a committee of running backs to replace Jonathan Taylor. Membership to that committee has included redshirt sophomore running back Nakia Watson and fullbacks Garrett Groshek and Mason Stokke. After racking up 341 rushing yards and averaging 6.7 yards per carry against the Wolverines, Wisconsin struggled to run the ball with any consistency against the Wildcats, totaling 136 rushing yards and averaging 3.4 yards per carry. Northwestern linebackers Blake Gallagher (14 tackles) and Paddy Fisher (13 tackles) were instrumental in stifling the Badgers’ ground game, which does not bode well for Minnesota’s beleaguered defense.

With their rushing attack stuck in neutral, Wisconsin turned to redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, who had a sensational debut against Illinois in the season opener, finishing 20-of-21 for 248 passing yards and five touchdowns. But Northwestern refused to let Mertz get comfortable in the pocket, registering three sacks and seven quarterback hurries and forcing three interceptions and a fumble. After barely breaking a sweat against the Fighting Illini, Mertz looked the part of a freshman quarterback against Northwestern, making bad decisions and missing easy throws. The Badgers were without wide receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor, and their lack of depth at the position was exposed by the Wildcats’ aggressive secondary. And Davis and Pryor are the wideouts Wisconsin calls on to run the jet sweep and attack the edges of the defense.

Mertz’s favorite target in the passing game is tight end Jake Ferguson, who is the only player on the roster with double-digit receptions (18) and leads the team with 181 receiving yards and four touchdowns. But Ferguson banged up his right shoulder after a collision with Northwestern linebacker Blake Gallagher on Saturday and looked to be in considerable pain on the sideline. He returned to the game, though it was clear he was not 100 percent.

Even if Davis, Pryor, and Ferguson are all out for the Axe game, Wisconsin can win easily without much of a passing game. Look no further than their game against Michigan. Mertz put up pedestrian numbers — 12-of-22 for 127 passing yards and two touchdowns — but the Badgers rolled the Wolverines, 49-11, because they were able to run the ball with impunity.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

I think you know by now what to expect from a Wisconsin defense. The Badgers are ranked 2nd nationally in rushing defense (67.3 rushing yards allowed per game), 3rd in passing defense (166 passing yards allowed per game), and 3rd in scoring defense (11.7 points allowed per game).

Wisconsin lives and dies by their linebackers, both against the run and in pressuring the quarterback. Junior Jack Sanborn is the leader and he has more tackles this season (20) than any two other Wisconsin defenders combined. Sanborn is their most effective run stopper, but sophomore linebacker Leo Chenal has been their most effective pass rusher. After struggling to muster much pressure in the first two games, the Badgers cranked up the heat against Northwestern with one sack and 13 quarterback hurries, of which Chenal was responsible for five.

Rounding out the linebacker corps are redshirt senior Noah Burks and true freshman Nick Herbig, who played well as part of the rotation before being thrust into a starting role after outside linebacker Izayah Green-May was lost for the season with an arm injury.

Wisconsin boasts a veteran secondary led by senior safeties Eric Burrell and Collin Wilder and senior cornerback Caesar Williams. The Badgers may be without their top cornerback, Rachad Wildgoose, who left the Northwestern game with an injury and was seen on the sideline with his arm in a sling. But even without Wildgoose, Wisconsin’s defensive backs are a physical group that likely won’t allow much breathing room for Rashod Bateman and co.

Considering how the Gophers’ fared against Iowa’s formidable defense, scoring against the Badgers — and re-claiming Paul Bunyan’s Axe — will be an uphill battle.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

Neither team. Thanks, COVID.