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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Wisconsin - Opponent Preview

Can the Gophers make it three in a row over their border rival?

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Bowl eligibility and Paul Bunyan’s Axe will be on the line when the Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-6) host the Wisconsin Badgers (6-5) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT.

Can Wisconsin score on offense?

The Air Raid offense heralded by the hiring of offensive coordinator Phil Longo under first-year Wisconsin head coach Luke Fickell has failed to take flight in Year 1. Former SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai has been a disappointment, though he was sidelined for three games with a broken hand. After throwing for a combined 72 touchdowns in his last two seasons with the Mustangs, Mordecai has only four passing touchdowns with the Badgers this season. He has completed 64.7 percent of his passes and thrown for 1,542 yards.

But Mordecai is not the sole reason Wisconsin ranks 81st nationally in passing yards per game. The Badgers simply don’t have the personnel, particularly at wide receiver, to run the offense Fickell envisioned when he lured Longo away from North Carolina. Cincinnati transfer Will Pauling has far and away been their most reliable receiver, leading the team with 64 receptions for 645 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Four other wide receivers have double-digit receptions but none of them have more than a touchdown to their name. Senior Chimere Dike was supposed to be the veteran leader of their receiving corps but he has struggled to stay healthy.

Even under a new coaching staff with a different offensive philosophy, the Badgers still find themselves living and dying by their bell cow. Running back Braelon Allen has missed time this season due to injury, but when he is able to play, Wisconsin will put the ball in his hands when they need to move the ball. He has rushed for 819 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.

As has been the case for years now, if you can win at the line of scrimmage and bottle up Braelon Allen, you’re going to have a good chance of beating the Badgers.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

This Wisconsin defense is not as elite as years past, but they are solid. The Badgers rank 46th in rushing defense (140 rushing yards allowed per game), 27th in passing defense (195.8 passing yards allowed per game), and 24th in scoring defense (19.4 points per game).

Even under a new defensive coordinator, Wisconsin’s linebackers remain a disruptive force. Sixth-year senior C.J. Goetz leads the way with 11 tackles for loss and four sacks, though redshirt sophomore Darryl Peterson is not far behind with 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. The Badgers have operated out of a 3-4 defense in the past but this incarnation likes to alternate between three and four down linemen while mixing up their coverages in the back end.

The leader of their defense is junior safety Hunter Wohler, who leads the team with 101 total tackles. He missed the second half of last week’s game against Nebraska with an upper body injury, so his status against Minnesota is uncertain. The other name to know in the Wisconsin secondary is that of cornerback Ricardo Hallman, who is tied for the team lead in pass break-ups (5) in addition to recording a team-high five interceptions this season.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

In the last month, Minnesota has suffered a defensive meltdown in the final minutes against Illinois, been blown out of the water by a bad Purdue team, and didn’t belong on the same field as Ohio State. You just know Saturday is going to be the final nail in the coffin of a November to forget. I hate myself for it, but I can’t predict a win. Wisconsin 24, Minnesota 17.