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Minnesota Football vs. Wisconsin: The Elite, The Meh & The Ugly

The Gophers closed out the regular season with a win in Camp Randall

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4) closed out the regular season with a 23-16 win over the Wisconsin Badgers (6-6) in Camp Randall to retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe for another year.

The Elite

Athan Kaliakmanis. With the Badgers putting the brakes on the Gophers’ ground game, Minnesota had to be able to move the ball through the air. Well look out UPS and FedEx, because Athan Kaliakmanis delivers. Making his fourth career start, the redshirt freshman signal caller was sensational against Wisconsin, finishing 19-of-29 for 319 passing yards and two touchdowns. He was under duress for most of the game, as the Badgers turned up the heat and often got the better of an inconsistent Minnesota offensive line. But not even three sacks and a raucous Camp Randall crowd were enough to rattle Kaliakmanis. His 319 yards passing are the most by a Gopher quarterback since Tanner Morgan threw for 368 yards against Iowa in 2019.

Le’Meke Brockington. How about a 45-yard sprint to the end zone on an RPO slant for the game-winning score and your first career touchdown reception?

Daniel Jackson. With five receptions for 86 receiving yards, Daniel Jackson had three receptions of 16 yards or more and averaged 17.2 yards per reception. None of his catches were more impressive than his 34-yard reception down the sideline in the fourth quarter. The catch set up the Gophers inside the red zone, allowing them to tie the score on a 27-yard field goal.

Dylan Wright. It’s been well documented that consistency has eluded Dylan Wright all season long. But he certainly looked the part of a big play receiver against the Badgers, hauling in five receptions for 86 receiving yards. Nearly half of those yards came on a contested catch on first down late in the first quarter that ended up being a gain of 42 yards for the Gophers.

Brevyn Spann-Ford. This is the Brevyn Spann-Ford we expected to see all season. He was effectively Kaliakmanis’ safety valve all game long, leading the team with seven receptions for 95 receiving yards. We also learned that Spann-Ford is a huge fan of hurdling defenders.

Michael Dixon. Starting in place of free safety Tyler Nubin, who did not play due to an injured hand, Michael Dixon stepped in and led the defense with seven solo tackles.

The Mertz-to-Walley connection returns for an encore. For the second straight year, Minnesota cornerback Justin Walley was on the receiving end of an interception courtesy of Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz. The Badgers signal caller overthrew his wide receiver on third down late in the fourth quarter and Walley hauled in the errant pass, returning it to the Wisconsin 35-yard line to kill one of the Badgers’ last scoring opportunities.

Paul Bunyan’s Axe stays with the Gophers. Minnesota has back-to-back wins over Wisconsin for the first time since 1993-94, and P.J. Fleck improves to 3-3 against the Badgers.

The Meh

Running the ball. Unfortunately, Saturday saw Mohamed Ibrahim’s streak of 19 consecutive games rushing for at least 100 yards come to an end. He also remains 36 yards short of breaking David Cobb’s single-season record for rushing yards and 57 yards of short of breaking Darrell Thompson’s program record for career rushing yards. After rushing for 58 yards on 12 carries in the first half, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, Ibrahim was completely neutralized in the second half. He was limited to 15 carries for 12 rushing yards in the final two quarters. It was clear that the Badgers’ defense made a concerted effort to attack Ibrahim coming out of halftime.

Stopping the run. Wisconsin had more success on the ground than Minnesota, rushing for 134 yards on 33 carries and averaging 4.3 yards per carry. And that was without starting running back Braelon Allen, who was too banged up to play. Third-string running back Isaac Guerendo even averaged 5.7 yards per carry, finishing with 40 rushing yards on seven carries.

Special teams. We need to talk about Rob Wenger. During his tenure as special teams coach, his units have been anything but special. Punter Mark Crawford was utterly ordinary against Wisconsin, averaging 41.8 yards per punt on four punts, none of which were downed inside the 20. And both return games contributed nothing to the Gophers’ win, averaging 11 yards on three kickoff returns and three yards on the only punt return of the game.

The Ugly

The Gophers’ (lack of a) pass rush. Minnesota could bring back everyone from this defensive line next season, with the exception of Thomas Rush. But the coaching staff may want to look for reinforcements in the transfer portal, otherwise they’ll need this group to take a big developmental step forward this offseason. The inability to generate a consistent pass rush has been the glaring weakness of this Gopher defense all season long, and the Wisconsin game was no different. Graham Mertz was far too comfortable in the pocket, as Minnesota failed to record a single sack. This is an area where the Gophers simply have to get better moving forward.