The University of Wisconsin football team will try to recapture Paul Bunyan's Axe when archrival Minnesota comes to Camp Randall Stadium. Here's a look at Who Has The Edge in Saturday's regular-season finale.
When the Badgers have the ball
UW has to hope high winds aren’t a factor this weekend because wind has been detrimental to the play of quarterback Graham Mertz this month. He hasn’t thrown for more than 200 yards since Oct. 22, and he has two touchdowns and three interceptions in November. He’s a combined 29 of 71 (40.8%) this month, which won’t get it done against a good Minnesota defense.
Mertz has to get the passing game back on track to beat Minnesota because the Gophers front seven stops the run well. The Gophers allow just more than 100 yards per game on the ground. UW tried with little success to get screen passes involved early last week, but offensive coordinator Bobby Engram would be wise to get some shorter routes incorporated first to get Mertz in rhythm. Minnesota doesn’t blitz often, so Mertz will have to be smart throwing into seven-man coverages.
Tailback Braelon Allen is nursing shoulder and ankle injuries, but the Badgers’ backfield got a boost with the return of Chez Mellusi. His hard running helped spur the comeback win over Nebraska and will be needed against Minnesota. How carries are split and how much Allen can play will be things to watch, but the Gophers will be tested more than they were last season when Allen was banged up and both Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo were unavailable.
Minnesota has faced the fewest red-zone plays in the Big Ten (58), a sign of how infrequently it allows opponents to move the ball, but the Gophers have seen just 12 with six offensive linemen on the field, which UW has used extensively during the second half of the season.
When the Gophers has the ball
Badgers interim coach Jim Leonhard described Minnesota’s offense as “simplicity at its finest.”
The Gophers employ a scheme that’s heavy on run-pass options and use play-action passes to attack defenses. Those strategies allow Minnesota’s big offensive line to wear down an opponent’s fronts and senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim is a battering ram. His 1,524 yards are second-most in the FBS, and he’s coming off a 263-yard performance against a strong Iowa defense.
Ibrahim has been a consistent force for the Gophers after tearing his Achilles last season, but the question mark for the Gophers is under center. Senior Tanner Morgan suffered an upper-body injury three weeks ago and hasn’t started the past two games. Redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis has stepped in and adds a bit of a rushing threat that Morgan doesn’t. He was hampered by the wind last week, but the Gophers’ play-calling appears to be limited with the inexperience at quarterback.
UW hasn’t had an interception in two weeks but still is tied for second-most in the FBS with 17, trailing only Southern Cal (18). A pick or two could be the momentum swing the Badgers need to get out to a lead and put the ball-control-focused Gophers in a bind.
UW's pass rush will be down its best player in Nick Herbig, who will miss the first half after he was flagged for targeting last week. UW appealed the flag on Herbig's behalf, but it was denied.
The Badgers’ special teams rebounded somewhat after a bad showing two weeks ago at Iowa, but it’s not a strength this season. Leonhard said addressing the lack of explosiveness on special teams would be high on his list of priorities if he was to be hired as coach.
Minnesota kicker Matthew Trickett has hit 12 of 14 tries this season, including all five of his attempts of 40-plus yards. Menomonee Falls native Quentin Redding has become a solid kick returner for the Gophers, featuring a long return of 92 yards this season.
UW’s focus needs to be on fielding punts cleanly and not allowing Redding to break any kind of return so the Gophers have to beat the Badgers’ defense.
UW is 62-61-8 overall against Minnesota but 30-35-4 when the game is the regular-season finale.
The winning team in this series averages a margin of victory of 14.1 points, and 70 of the matchups have been decided by double-digits.
UW’s defense hasn’t allowed an opponent to gain 200 total yards in each of the past three games.
Minnesota center John Michael Schmitz has allowed three pressures on 267 pass-blocking snaps (1.1%), according to PFF. Badgers nose tackle Keeanu Benton has 23 pressures on 201 pass rushing snaps (11.4%).
Photos: Wisconsin football knocks off Nebraska at Memorial Stadium