Gophers slight underdogs at home with ‘The Axe’ and Big Ten West title at stake

Wisconsin opened the week as favorites over Minnesota.

Nick Jungheim

It’s difficult to overstate exactly how much is on the line in No. 9 Minnesota’s (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) regular season finale against No. 13 Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten). A victory will send the Gophers to Indianapolis to play for the Big Ten Championship, keep their College Football Playoff hopes alive and, of course, keep Paul Bunyan’s axe in Minneapolis for another year.

Saturday is also senior day, one last opportunity for longtime stars such as receiver Tyler Johnson and defensive end Carter Coughlin to play in front of a sold-out TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota can be sure the Badgers will be determined to spoil the occasion and exact revenge for last season’s 37-15 Gophers victory, their first in the series since 2003.

Wisconsin has a chance to salvage its season after looking dominant in its first six games. Ranked as high as No. 6 in the AP poll, Wisconsin had defeated opponents by a combined score of 255-29 before suffering consecutive losses to Illinois and Ohio State.

When Minnesota runs the ball:

Minnesota’s backfield features two of the longest-tenured Gophers in redshirt seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Smith ranks second on the program’s list of all-time leading rushers and surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for the season against Northwestern last week. That duo, along with redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim, had their most challenging game against Iowa on Nov. 16, accumulating just 63 yards on 30 carries. However, Minnesota’s ground game bounced back against Northwestern, totaling 212 yards. Smith, Brooks and Ibrahim all averaged over five yards per carry against the Wildcats.

The Badgers deserve to be mentioned among the top rush defenses in the nation, ranking No. 9 in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Led by senior linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun, Wisconsin has held opponents to under 100 yards rushing per game and 3.41 yards per carry. The Gophers feature one of the better rushing attacks the Badgers have faced this season, and this should present an intriguing matchup on a potentially snowy afternoon.

Matchup to watch: RB Rodney Smith vs. LB Chris Orr

Advantage: Wisconsin

When Minnesota passes the ball:

Upon clearing concussion protocol, quarterback Tanner Morgan proved he was fully healthy against Northwestern, tossing four touchdown passes last Saturday. The redshirt sophomore ranks No. 6 in the nation in passing efficiency. He is helped greatly by a dynamic receiving core that includes Johnson and Biletnikoff Award semifinalist sophomore Rashod Bateman. Johnson and Bateman are the first pair of Minnesota receivers to ever both surpass 1,000 receiving yards in the same season and lead the Big Ten in receiving with 1,025 and 1,023 yards respectively. 

Lining up against Bateman and Johnson will be a pair of young but talented cornerbacks in Faion Hicks and Rachad Wildgoose, both true sophomores. Although young, the tandem is playing at a high level, leading a group that ranks No. 6 in FBS in passing yards allowed per game. Still, Minnesota has proven capable of moving the ball through the air against even the stoutest of defenses.

Matchup to watch: WR Tyler Johnson vs. CB Faion Hicks

Advantage: Minnesota

When Wisconsin runs the ball:

Junior Jonathan Taylor headlines the Wisconsin offense. A unanimous first-team All-American in 2018, Taylor is in the midst of another historic season. He is second in FBS with 1,685 rushing yards in 2019 and owns the FBS record for most rushing yards through the end of a player’s junior season (5,856). Taylor is a bonafide superstar who is second on the Big Ten’s all-time leading rusher list behind only former Badgers great, Ron Dayne.

Minnesota’s defensive front stacks up well against the run, ranking No. 27 in FBS in rush defense. While the Gophers have conceded over 100 yards rushing in three consecutive games, they appeared improved last week. Northwestern rushed for 128 yards on 49 attempts, an average of 2.6 yards per attempt. Still, Taylor and Wisconsin present a much greater challenge than arguably any other team in the nation.

Advantage: Wisconsin

Matchup to watch: RB Jonathan Taylor vs. LB Kamal Martin

When Wisconsin passes the ball:

Similar to Minnesota, the Badgers do not overwhelm teams with the volume of their passing attack, but they employ the pass effectively. Wisconsin ranks No. 101 in FBS in passing offense, but quarterback Jack Coan ranks No. 14 in FBS in passing efficiency. Junior receiver Quintez Cephus leads the team and ranks No. 15 in the Big Ten with 606 receiving yards. 

The Gophers pass defense has emerged as one of the team’s strengths this season. The unit ranks No. 4 in a Big Ten conference stacked with powerful defenses. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who was named a Bronko Nagurski Trophy finalist, has seven interceptions this season, ranking third in FBS.

Advantage: Minnesota

Matchup to watch: QB Jack Coan vs. S Antoine Winfield Jr. 

Prediction:

Wisconsin 24, Minnesota 21

Both teams present strengths that complement the other side’s, making for an exciting matchup in what should be a raucous atmosphere. Ultimately, Wisconsin’s ability to run the ball gives the Badgers an important edge if the game is played in sloppy weather, as expected.

The Gophers have passed almost every test all year, but until they can get over the hump and prove themselves capable of winning the Big Ten West, something they failed to do in a similar scenario against Wisconsin in 2014, it’s advisable that fans err on the side of pessimism.

Everything else you need to know:

Start time: 2:30 p.m. CT

Network: ABC

Radio: KFAN 100.3

Line: Wisconsin by 3