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Minnesota Football: RoWING to Wisconsin - Opponent Preview

The rumors of the Axe game’s demise were greatly exaggerated

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Gophers (3-3) and the Wisconsin Badgers (2-3) get a second chance to engage in their annual border battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe thanks to the Big Ten’s Champions Week.

Can Wisconsin score on offense?

Wisconsin is in a serious funk on offense. After starting the season 2-0 and averaging 47 points per game on offense, the Badgers have dropped their last three games and averaged 6.6 points per game over that stretch. So what happened? Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz has been made mortal. Since a near perfect debut against Illinois in the season opener, finishing 20-of-21 for 248 passing yards and five touchdowns, Mertz has thrown more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (3). He has made the kind of mistakes you’d expect from a freshman quarterback seeing the first game action of his career: missing open receivers, misreading the defense, and leaving the pocket too early when he starts to feel pressure.

The pressure on Mertz has been exacerbated by the lack of a consistent rushing attack, which suffered a setback prior to the Iowa game when true freshman running back Jalen Berger reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. The Badgers have taken a committee approach to replacing the production of Jonathan Taylor in the backfield, and Berger had separated himself from the pack, leading the team with 267 rushing yards. With Berger out, redshirt sophomore running back Nakia Watson and fullbacks Garrett Groshek and Mason Stokke will shoulder the load. Those three combined for 22 carries and 47 rushing yards against the Hawkeyes.

The Badgers’ lack of depth at the wide receiver position has also been exposed this season. Tight end Jake Ferguson is still a reliable target for Mertz, but senior wide receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor have both been banged up. Davis has missed their last three games, and Pryor missed the Northwestern game, returned against Indiana, and then sat out the Iowa game. And Davis and Pryor are the wideouts Wisconsin has primarily called upon to run the jet sweep and attack the edges of the defense. Without them, the Badgers have been forced to rely on true freshman Chimere Dike and redshirt senior walk-on Jack Dunn.

As poorly as Wisconsin has played on offense, the competition has been a factor as well. Northwestern is ranked No. 2 in scoring defense, Indiana is No. 20, and Iowa is No. 8. The Wildcats and the Hawkeyes are both also ranked in the Top 15 in total defense. So it has been something of a perfect storm for the Badgers, and the Gopher defense — specifically their linebackers — will need to build off their strong performance against Nebraska.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

With how much their offense has struggled, Wisconsin’s defense has been challenged to keep them in games. And for the most part they’ve been up to the task. The Badgers rank 3rd nationally in rushing defense (83.2 rushing yards allowed per game), 5th in passing defense (167.8 passing yards allowed per game), and 6th in scoring defense (15.4 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 their most effective run stopper, but sophomore linebacker Leo Chenal has been their most effective pass rusher. After struggling to muster much pressure in their 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 will be without their top cornerback, Rachad Wildgoose, who opted out of the season after suffering an injury against Northwestern. But even without Wildgoose, Wisconsin’s defensive backs are a physical group that likely won’t allow much breathing room for a Minnesota wide receiver corps that no longer features Rashod Bateman.

To me, the key matchup will be the Badgers’ linebackers versus the Gophers’ shuffled offensive line. I have no idea whether center John Michael Schmitz or left guard Axel Ruschmeyer will be available Saturday. The same goes for tight ends Ko Kieft, Bryce Witham, and Jake Paulson. Minnesota could be limited again in terms of blockers, and communication will be critical for a shuffled offensive line that hasn’t had much time to develop chemistry. You can bet Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is going to get creative in how he dials up pressure in an effort to confuse the Gophers up front and keep them off balance.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

I was impressed with how well Minnesota played against Nebraska given the circumstances, and I’ve been surprised by how poorly Wisconsin has played in their three-game losing streak. I’m going to embrace the renewed sense of optimism. Minnesota 20, Wisconsin 16.