3 reasons Wisconsin will beat Minnesota, keep the axe
No. 14 Wisconsin will head on the road to take on unranked Minnesota in the final B1G game of the regular season with high stakes on the line Saturday afternoon. The Badgers will look to chop down the goalposts with Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 17th time in the past 18 years with a third consecutive victory in this series.
Most importantly, a spot in the conference title game is on the line. Wisconsin would advance to Indianapolis to take on either Michigan or Ohio State with a victory, no matter what else happens. Even with a loss, the Badgers would advance if Nebraska beats Iowa on Friday and Indiana beats Purdue on Saturday.
Paul Chryst would certainly hope it doesn’t come down to the second scenario, but he doesn’t have anything to worry about because Wisconsin will beat Minnesota once again to close out the regular season on an 8-game winning streak.
Here are 3 reasons why:
Comparing offensive strengths
Wisconsin and Minnesota are the top 2 in rushing play percentage against FBS opponents if you don’t include the 3 military academies, which run the triple-option. The Gophers run the ball on 67.6% of snaps, while the Badgers run on 65.5% of their plays.
Just because both offenses are committed to the running game and go to it more than most other teams, that doesn’t mean both teams are very good at it. After a slow start, the Badgers returned to their status as an elite rushing offense, while the Gophers haven’t moved the ball with much efficiency in the ground game recently.
Since Minnesota’s Week 1 matchup with Ohio State, 3 Gophers running backs have suffered season-ending injuries. Since the start of fall camp, 3 Wisconsin running backs are no longer with the team and 2 more were ruled out for the season with injuries. Fortunately for the Badgers, true freshman Braelon Allen turned out to be the best of the bunch and is in the early stages of being the next great Wisconsin running back.
Since Allen became the workhorse over the last 3 games, the Badgers rushed for 6.6 yards per attempt, which ranks No. 6 in the country. Since Bryce Williams became the third Minnesota back to have his season end early, the Gophers rushing attack has averaged 3.6 yards per carry over the last 3 games, which ranks No. 94.
Badgers defense is elite
There is no question the best unit on the field on Saturday will be the Wisconsin defense, which ranks No. 2 in the country in opponent yards per play after Georgia passed the Badgers last weekend.
For the first time all season, Wisconsin did not have an answer for the Nebraska offense. For as good as the Badgers have been on that side of the ball over the years, they always have a tough time with the Cornhuskers and Adrian Martinez.
Fortunately, Minnesota runs a completely different offense, and Tanner Morgan is nowhere close to the same quarterback as Martinez. Still, it would be wise of the Gophers to work the middle of the field in the passing game and force the Badgers’ linebackers into coverage.
The question is how much Minnesota will adjust the way it has run its offense all season long. It’s hard to believe the Gophers will have much success on the ground because the next team that has a successful performance running against Wisconsin’s front seven would be the first, as the Badgers remain No. 1 in opponent yards per rush attempt in 2021.
The most passing yards Morgan has thrown for in a single game this season is just 209 against Nebraska. He will need more than that, because Minnesota’s offensive production will have to come from the passing game even though Wisconsin ranks No. 10 in opponent yards per pass attempt this season.
Turnovers are back in Wisconsin’s favor
This was the biggest issue in Wisconsin’s 1-3 start to the season. The Badgers gave the ball away 15 times while creating 4 turnovers in the first 6 games. That has completely flipped over the second half of the season as the Badgers forced 18 turnovers with 6 giveaways in the last 5 games.
Fumbles are nearly impossible to rely on, but the Badgers should have chances for interceptions. Minnesota will need to find something new when it realizes it cannot run on Wisconsin, and the Gophers will air it out at a higher rate than they’re used to. Wisconsin’s secondary should be ready to take advantage.
Turnovers can be a bit fluky, but they’re game-changers. If Wisconsin continues to take care of the ball and steal a possession or 2 like it has recently, the Badgers will be in great shape to win the West for the 5th time in 8 seasons.