State Journal reporter Jason Galloway breaks down the battle between the Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Golden Gophers for Paul Bunyan's Axe on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
WHEN THE BADGERS HAVE THE BALL
Jonathan Taylor is coming off one of the greatest performances by a running back in UW history, rushing for 321 yards and three touchdowns in a 47-44 triple-overtime victory at Purdue. While the Badgers’ offense has struggled to find any consistency this season, Taylor made the unit look quite potent throughout the fourth quarter and overtimes last week.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook remains questionable after missing the past two games with a concussion. Backup Jack Coan fared better against the Boilermakers than in his previous two starts, completing 16-of-24 passes for 160 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Right tackle David Edwards (left arm) and running back Taiwan Deal (right leg) are also questionable.
Minnesota fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith two weeks ago after surrendering an average of 43 points per game during the Golden Gophers’ first six Big Ten games. Under interim Joe Rossi, Minnesota held an explosive Purdue offense to 10 points before giving up 24 to Northwestern last week — its two lowest point totals allowed since non-conference play. Gophers linebackers Blake Cashman (101 tackles) and Carter Coughlin (nine sacks) are players to keep an eye on.
EDGE | UW
KEY STAT | RUSHING OFFENSE
UW has had at least one 100-yard rusher in each of its 14 straight wins over Minnesota. A total of 11 different players have combined for 16 100-yard performances during the streak. Taylor rushed for 149 yards in last year’s meeting with the Gophers and is currently averaging 238 yards per game during the month of November.
WHEN THE GOLDEN GOPHERS HAVE THE BALL
The Gophers rank outside the top 70 nationally in scoring, total, rushing and passing offense, although they have scored at least 28 points in five of their eight Big Ten games. Since taking over for the injured Zack Annexstad five weeks ago, freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan’s completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 1,110 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s got the Big Ten’s leading receiver helping him out in Tyler Johnson, who’s caught 70 passes this season for 1,036 yards and 10 touchdowns. Minnesota running back Rodney Smith suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 2, making way for another freshman, Mohamed Ibrahim, to take over as the lead back. He’s rushed for 815 yards and six touchdowns in just eight games.
UW gave up 462 yards to Purdue last week, including 386 through the air, and hopes to bounce back against a less explosive offense this week. Even after allowing 44 points to the Boilermakers, the Badgers still rank 41st nationally in scoring defense.
EDGE | UW
KEY STAT | TURNOVERS
Only two FBS teams have committed more turnovers than Minnesota’s 25 this season. The Badgers’ 20 takeaways, tied for the 23rd-most in the country.
Minnesota three-year starter Emmit Carpenter has made 12-of-16 field goals this season. UW’s Rafael Gaglianone is 10 for 14 on the year but missed a couple chip shots, including a 30-yard try last week at Purdue. Badgers punter Connor Allen has averaged 36.6 yards per punt since replacing Anthony Lotti four weeks ago, while the Gophers’ Jacob Herbers averages 41.39 per kick. Herbers has only allowed eight returns for 10 yards all season, the third-best mark in the country for average return yards allowed.
UW’s only allowed 10 kickoff returns thanks to kickoff specialist Zach Hintze’s 83.33 touchback percentage, the seventh-best mark in the country.
EDGE | EVEN
With a loss this week, P.J. Fleck would miss a bowl game for the second time in as many years as Minnesota’s coach after he brought Western Michigan to a New Year’s Six Bowl in 2016. While UW didn’t meet expectations this year, Paul Chryst and the Badgers still have an opportunity to grind out a nine-win season.
EDGE | UW
Minnesota needs one more win to become bowl eligible and will try to take back Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003. The Badgers are celebrating Senior Day and have won 11 straight Big Ten games at home.
EDGE | MINNESOTA
STATE JOURNAL'S PICK
While the Badgers have put together a rather underwhelming season thus far, it wouldn’t be the first time they finished off a disappointing year with a win over Minnesota. UW’s the better team and should make it 15 straight over the Gophers.
BADGERS 24, MINNESOTA 13
THE NUMBER (UW)
7 | fourth-quarter comebacks for the Badgers with Paul Chryst as head coach, most recently in last week’s triple-overtime victory at Purdue. Chryst has been part of a combined 15 fourth-quarter comebacks as offensive coordinator (2005-11) and head coach (2015-present) at UW.
THE NUMBER (Minnesota)
58 | freshmen on Minnesota’s roster, which makes up 51.7 percent of the Gophers’ 112 players.