Preview: Wisconsin Badgers @ Minnesota Golden Gophers

The most played rivalry in College Football history between the Wisconsin Badgers (8-3, 6-2 B1G) and the Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-4, 5-3 B1G) will have the 131st edition tomorrow from Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

Kickoff time is set for 3:00 PM (Central Time) and will be nationally televised on Fox.

Wisconsin leads the all-time series 62-60-8 (.508).

The Badgers are 7-point favorites, per Bovada, as I write this.

Iowa came from down 21-6 to beat Nebraska 28-21 today. That means that if Wisconsin loses to Minnesota, then the Hawkeyes will win the Big Ten West division. If the Badgers win tomorrow, then Wisconsin will win the Big Ten West and play for the Big Ten Title in Indianapolis next Saturday.

At least we don’t have to spend the next 12 months listening to PJ Fleck talk about the Gophers being co-Big Ten West champions and them making participation rings for it.

For Wisconsin it’s simple: A win tomorrow will give them a berth to the Big Ten Title game where the opponent will be the winner of the Ohio State at Michigan game. A win will also mean they retain the Axe.

If UW gets it done tomorrow, it will be one of the most remarkable recoveries in school history, going from 1-3 overall and 0-2 in Big Ten play to Big Ten West champions and the potential to earn the program’s first Big Ten title since 2012.

Regardless of tomorrow’s outcome, I think this is one of the best coaching jobs by Paul Chryst in his career.

I remember driving home from Chicago after the game against Notre Dame at Soldier Field with the fourth quarter meltdown to bring them to a 1-2 record on September 25th (same fourth quarter meltdown happened the following week against Michigan), the person I was with, her and I kept saying how disappointed we were in the fourth quarter and saying we weren’t sure what to expect the rest of the season.

But Paul Chryst did a great job after the team lost to Michigan the following week to fall to 1-3 overall. Expectations were very high for this team entering the season.

Chryst easily could have lost the locker room, but he kept the team together. Wisconsin hit a fork in the road after the Michigan game where they could have decided “enough was enough” and we’re just going get through the season. But this team didn’t do that, they dug in and they put themselves in a position to play for the Big Ten championship with a win tomorrow.

There is not a hotter running back in the country than true freshman Braelon Allen (obligatory “he’s 17” comment). With his 228-yard, three touchdown game against Nebraska last week, Allen joined Ron Dayne, James White and Jonathan Taylor as the only true freshman in program history to rush for 1,000-yards in a season. He has done that in the last seven games.

However, Minnesota should provide a test for Allen and company. The Gophers rank No. 12 in the country against the run, allowing 103.6 yards per game on 3.5 yards per carry. Wisconsin has rushed for 200-yards in five of the last seven games, but Minnesota hasn’t allowed that number since the season opener against Ohio State.

Minnesota is a run first team. No team in the Big Ten, including Wisconsin, has run it more than the Gophers 513 attempts this season. That has come despite Minnesota losing their top three running backs. They don’t have the best rushing attack in the conference (204 ypg, 4.4 ypc) but they have showed the willingness to stick with it.

That commitment, however, will be put to the test against Wisconsin. The Badgers are still stopping the run better than anyone else in the country, allowing just 59.8 rushing yards per game. Teams are averaging 2.0 yards per carry and only two teams have topped 3.0 yards per carry.

If the season-long trend of Wisconsin stopping the run continues, it could be a long day for Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan and a shaky Gophers passing game.

Graham Mertz Making Plays:

There is no question that Mertz struggled mightily through the first four games. But he has continued to show improvement each week after the Michigan game.

In the last three games, Mertz has completed 72-percent of his passes with six touchdowns and two interceptions. His passer rating is 188.2 in that stretch. It is clearly the best three-game stretch in his young career, and it has totally changed the narrative around the once maligned Wisconsin offense.

It is possible that Minnesota will be able to slow down Allen, but that will not completely stamp out the Badgers chances of winning like it might have in the first four games of the season.

Numbers To Consider:

When Barry Alvarez took over the Wisconsin program in 1990, Minnesota led the all-time series 54-37-8. In the 31 games since, Wisconsin is 25-6 and that includes UW winning 16 of the last 17 matchups.

Minnesota quarterback threw for 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions in his All-Big Ten 2019 season where he had a passer rating of 178.7. In the last two years combined (2020, 2021), Morgan has thrown 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 130.5 in the two seasons since.

Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal was named a Butkus Award finalist this week. This award goes to the top linebacker in the country. Despite missing the first two games of the season, Chenal leads UW in tackles (92) and tackles for loss (15.5), while ranking second in sacks (6.5). Pro Football Focus has him as the second-highest graded linebacker in ten country.

My Prediction:

Wisconsin 24, Minnesota 21.

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