The Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-4) wrap up the regular season by hosting the Wisconsin Badgers (8-3) on Saturday in their annual border battle for possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Can Wisconsin score on offense?
The Badgers have a freshman sensation at running back in Braelon Allen, who has rushed for 100+ yards in seven consecutive games and is currently averaging 7.6 yards per carry. He has benefitted from improved play up front by a Wisconsin offensive line that struggled early in the season, but Allen also brings to the table an elite combination of size, strength, and speed. He is a homegrown talent out of Fond Du Lac and looks to be the next great Wisconsin running back.
This will be the biggest test of the season for the Gopher defense, which ranks 12th nationally in rushing defense but has been known to start slow. The Illinois and Indiana games are a perfect example. Minnesota cannot afford to fall behind early, especially when their offense will be up against one of the best defenses in the country. Expect defensive coordinator Joe Rossi to commit extra defenders to the box to try and limit Allen to minimal gains, but doing so also likely means a lot of single coverage down field against an offense that tries to take advantage of loaded boxes by springing explosive plays in the play-action passing game.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, quarterback Graham Mertz has recovered from his disastrous start to the season. In his last three games, Mertz has completed 71.9% of his passes, averaged 200 yards passing per game, and thrown for six touchdowns, with only two interceptions. He has become the effective game manager that Wisconsin’s offense needs at quarterback. He’ll likely rely on a combination of wide receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor and tight end Jake Ferguson as his primary targets. It will be interesting to see how Rossi disguises his coverages to keep the Badgers off balance in the play-action passing game.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
This is one of the best defenses in the country. The Badgers ranked 1st nationally in rushing defense (64.3 rushing yards allowed per game), 6th in passing defense (173.5 passing yards allowed per game), 2nd in third down defense (25.2%), 7th in red zone defense (69.6%), and 5th in scoring defense (15.8 points allowed per game).
If offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. has a bag of tricks, now is the time to empty it. Because Minnesota is going to need to get creative and break tendencies on offense to keep this Wisconsin defense from playing downhill. Nebraska had a surprising amount of success against the Badgers last week, but their option offense is very different from what Minnesota runs. The Cornhuskers also carved up Wisconsin with the play-action pass, racking up 351 passing yards. But the Gophers haven’t been able to pass the ball with any consistency this season.
Early down success will be critical for Minnesota. If the Badgers are able to get the Gophers in obvious passing situations, you can count on a blitz from defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, and Minnesota’s pass protection has struggled to pick them up at times this season.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
I think the Gophers’ defense will keep them in the game, but I just don’t have much faith that Mike Sanford Jr. can solve this Badger defense. Wisconsin 24, Minnesota 10.