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Keys to Saturday's Badgers football game vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers

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The University of Wisconsin football team's defense will be without its star for the first half Saturday. How can the Badgers adjust? Here's a look at the keys to victory for both Wisconsin and Minnesota ... and a prediction for the final score.

Three keys for the Badgers

No picks: UW’s offense isn’t in good shape right now. Quarterback Graham Mertz made just enough plays down the stretch against Nebraska for UW to eke out a win, but he’ll need to be better for UW to beat a good Minnesota defense. The first step is not turning over the ball. Mertz has nine interceptions this season and the opponent has scored a touchdown off six of them.

Minnesota’s defense has 12 picks this season, a bit over one per game, but Mertz has to avoid it the best he can. His interception against Minnesota swung that game toward the Gophers last season.

Tackle Ibrahim: This is the “easier said than done” portion of these keys. Gophers tailback Mohamed Ibrahim is a force. He was named the Big Ten’s top tailback in 2020, then tore his Achilles last year in the opener and seemingly has come back no worse for wear. Ibrahim’s leading the league in rushing yards per game (152.4) and has had success against UW in the past with a 151-yard performance in 2020.

UW can’t afford to miss tackles in the box and let him get loose in the second level of the defense. Linemen and linebackers have to wrap him up.

Confuse the QB: Minnesota is expected to be without senior quarterback Tanner Morgan against UW. Minnesota only has classified Morgan’s injury as an upper-body issue, but Morgan was diagnosed with a concussion earlier this season.

Redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis has started the past two games for the Gophers, and the fresh-faced QB should be met with a variety of looks from Jim Leonhard’s defense. UW can’t get too crazy and get out of position to stop the run, but any passing situation should show Kaliakmanis something he likely hasn’t seen before.

Three keys for the Gophers

Start fast: Both teams are playing for pride and rivalry more than big-picture stakes. Neither can represent the Big Ten West in the conference title game. But Minnesota as the road team would be wise to get on the board quickly and force the Badgers’ inconsistent offense to play from behind. Kaliakmanis’ mobility could be put to use here — he’s not afraid to keep the ball on read-option looks and can extend plays by moving in the pocket, something that UW has struggled with this season.

Beat up Braelon: Leonhard said the coaching staff will be smart with tailback Braelon Allen’s workload as he deals with shoulder and ankle injuries. Minnesota tackled well against Allen last season, a key factor in Paul Bunyan’s Axe residing in Minneapolis for the past 12 months. Minnesota must hit Allen and force him to the sideline, leaving UW with a still-shaking-off-the-rust Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo in the backfield.

Pick spots to be aggressive: Minnesota’s coaches rave about Kaliakmanis’ potential, but they were fairly conservative in what they allowed him to do last week against Iowa. He threw for 87 yards against Iowa’s stout defense, but he likely will need to do more against UW. The run-pass option schemes Minnesota runs create safe, easy throws, but Minnesota should mix in more shots downfield against UW, which hasn’t had to defend those plays in nearly a month.

Predictions

This game is going to come down to which team avoids the big mistake on offense or special teams.

These defenses are built to stop the other team’s offense, with strong front sevens able to halt the run. It’s very likely UW will need Graham Mertz to throw to win this game. He’s struggled the past three weeks, but he could return to the level of play he showed earlier this season if the weather cooperates.

UW has more weapons on offense and one of them makes a game-changing play, but the Gophers keep it close.

Colten's pick: Badgers 20, Minnesota 17

Here's how fans picks the game.

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