The Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-4) close out the regular season on Saturday with a visit to the Wisconsin Badgers (6-5) in the 132nd meeting between these two hated rivals.
Can Wisconsin score on offense?
The Badgers could be without top running back Braelon Allen against the Gophers. Wisconsin’s leading rusher was nursing a banged up shoulder entering last week’s game against Nebraska, before exiting the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent right leg injury. His status for Saturday is uncertain. Even if he is available for the regular season finale, Allen is unlikely to be 100%, which means the Badgers will lean more on Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo.
Mellusi returned to action Saturday against the Huskers after missing the previous four games with a broken wrist and rushed for 98 yards on 21 carries. Guerendo has been a nice complement to Allen in Mellusi’s absence, averaging six yards per carry on 58 carries this season and contributing to the passing game with 13 receptions, including a 27-yard catch to set up the Badgers in the red zone on their game-winning touchdown drive against Nebraska.
Speaking of the passing game, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz has struggled mightily since the calendar turned to November. He has completed less than 50% of his passes in each of his last three games, recording single-digit completions against Maryland and Nebraska. Mertz has also thrown three interceptions in his last two games, including a pick six against Iowa.
His top target is junior wide receiver Chimere Dike, who leads the team in receptions (39), receiving yards (601), and receiving touchdowns (6). Freshman Skyler Bell and sophomore Keontez Lewis have also contributed, but this is not a prolific passing game. The Badgers rank 112th nationally in passing offense, averaging 189.4 passing yards per game.
Overall, inconsistency has plagued Wisconsin on this side of the ball all season long. One week Mertz is dropping dimes all over the field and the next he is missing wide open targets. The offensive line opens up running lanes one game and then looks overmatched at the line of scrimmage the next. We’ll see which Badger offense decides to show up on Saturday.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
As miserable as November has been for Graham Mertz, the Wisconsin defense has taken the opportunity to round into form after stumbling through the first two months of the season.
Through their last three games against Maryland, Iowa, and Nebraska, the Badgers are allowing 13.6 points per game, 76.3 rushing yards per game, and 92.3 passing yards per game.
As per usual, the focal point of the Wisconsin defense is their linebackers. They are going to be dialing up the pressure to drop Mohamed Ibrahim in the backfield and force redshirt freshman quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis into making a mistake in the passing game.
But the Badgers will be without top linebacker Nick Herbig for the first half of Saturday’s game against the Gophers after he was ejected for targeting in the second half of Wisconsin’s 15-14 win over Nebraska a week ago. Herbig is their top pass rusher (11 sacks) and leads the team with 15.5 tackles for loss, though linebackers C.J. Goetz and Maema Njongmeta aren’t far behind with nine and eight tackles for loss, respectively. As a team, Wisconsin has registered 72 tackles for loss this season. For comparison, Minnesota has only registered 41.
The Badgers also have a disruptive force up in the middle of nose tackle Keanu Benton, who has 30 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, and three sacks this season.
This game is going to be won or lost in the trenches. The Gophers are going to do what they’ve done all season long and run the ball early and often. Just as Wisconsin has hit their stride defensively, though, Minnesota’s offensive line is also playing their best football of the season, having paved the way for 300+ rushing yards in back-to-back games.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
With the exception of 2019, Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s game plans for the Wisconsin offense have fared quite well. I think that trend continues Saturday, with the Gophers’ stout run defense bottling up Allen, Mellusi, and Guerendo. On the other side of the ball, I’m not sure Ibrahim can be stopped right now. I think he rolls up another big game on the ground and returns home with Paul Bunyan’s Axe in tow. Minnesota 21, Wisconsin 14.