WISCONSIN at MINNESOTA
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Huntington Bank Stadium
TV: KMSP-TV Channel 9
Radio: KFXN-FM 100.3
Weather: 37 degrees, cloudy, 13 mph NW wind
Records: The Gophers (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten) can win the Big Ten West with a win over No. 14 Wisconsin (8-3, 6-2) and some help: a Nebraska victory over Iowa on Friday and Purdue topping Indiana on Saturday. That would create a four-way tie, and Minnesota would break it to win the division.
History: Minnesota has not beaten Wisconsin and lifted Paul Bunyan’s Axe at home since 2003, a skid of eight straight losses dating to when the Metrodome still stood. Head coach P.J. Fleck is 1-3 against the Badgers, the win coming at Camp Randall Stadium in 2018.
Key matchup: Mike Sanford Jr. (and Fleck) vs. Jim Leonard. The Gophers offensive coordinator, under the tighter reins of the head coach, need to be aggressive against the Badgers defensive coordinator and his top defense. Minnesota showed new wrinkles in the passing game in a 35-14 win over Indiana last week and will need to toss that and the kitchen sink in to pull off an upset.
WHO HAS THE EDGE?
Gophers offense vs. Wisconsin defense: The Badgers “basically lead the world in every statistical category,” Sanford said of a unit that is No. 1 in total defense (233 yards per game), No. 1 rushing defense (60 yards per game) and No. 5 in scoring defense (15.8 points per game). Minnesota has a Top 25 running game — Ky Thomas has four 100-yard games — and should have some unique schemes ready for their rival. (See: Minnesota using a toss sweep against Iowa two weeks ago.) “Two extremely physical teams,” Sanford said. Tanner Morgan has a QB rating of less than 108 in the U’s past three losses with one touchdown and four interceptions. In their seven wins, his rating is no lower than 125, with seven TDs and three INTs. If Morgan can make timely and big throws, it could be the deciding factor in the rivalry game. WR Chris Autman-Bell has proven he can make big plays and needs to be given chances, especially if coverages show openings. Minnesota will have to get around LBs Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn; that duo is among top seven graded linebackers in the nation, per Pro Football Focus. EDGE: Wisconsin
Gophers defense vs. Wisconsin offense: Badgers phenom RB Braelon Allen has seven straight 100-yard games, all Wisconsin victories. The Badgers run the ball on 67 percent of plays (Minnesota runs on 69 percent of offensive downs). The Gophers’ run defense has been solid all year, 12th in the nation with a 104-yard average, but will need to gang tackle Allen, a 17-year-old, 6-foot-2, 240-pound combination of speed and power. Gophers LBs Jack Gibbens and Mariano Sori-Marin and nine others will need to bow up and keep Allen from getting too many big gains. Wisconsin’s passing offense’s lack of productivity mirrors that of the Gophers; the Badgers are 118th in country with only 161 yards per game. QB Graham Mertz has thrown six INTs and two TDs in three losses and seven TDs and two picks in eight wins. TE Jack Ferguson is the top target with 39 receptions for 390 yards and two TDs, another example of why Gibbens and Sori-Marin will matter so much. Sixth-year senior CB Coney Durr will make his defense-leading 42nd start on Saturday and his INT vs. Badgers helped Minnesota get to overtime before falling 20-17 in 2020. EDGE: Gophers
Special teams: Wisconsin KR Stephan Bracey Jr. returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown in Wisconsin’s 35-28 win over Nebraska last week. Former Minnesota PR Demetrius Douglas’ had a 69-yard return for a TD in the 37-15 win over Badgers in 2018. Could a big return factor in again? The Gophers are 4 for 10 in field goals over 40 yards, so Fleck should be more willing to go for it on fourth down in Wisconsin territory. EDGE: Wisconsin
Prediction: Against Nebraska, Wisconsin gave up 351 passing yards and 28 points, the most during its seven-game winning streak, but the Gophers’ offense has not been able to go through the air with enough consistency to inspire confidence they can win as a seven-point underdog. Wisconsin, 23-20
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