The No. 13 Wisconsin Badgers (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) travel to Minneapolis Saturday to face the No. 9 Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-1, 7-1) with the Big Ten West title and a possible Rose Bowl appearance on the line.
The Badgers have the No. 19 Iowa Hawkeyes to thank for the importance of this matchup, as the Hawkeyes ended the Gophers’ bid for an undefeated season with a 23–19 victory at home.
If the Badgers didn’t have enough to play for already, Minnesota came into Madison a year ago and ended the Badgers’ 14-game win streak between the two rivals with a dominant 37–15 victory. The all-time series between these two schools now stands deadlocked at 60-60-8, so the winner of Saturday’s matchup will take home Paul Bunyan’s Axe with more than just bragging rights over their rival.
It’s rivalry week, the axe is on the line and the winner goes on to face No. 2 The Ohio State University Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship. What more could you ask for?
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Here’s how Head Coach Paul Chryst’s Badgers match up against Head Coach P.J. Fleck’s Golden Gophers.
The two teams enter the matchup with nearly identical numbers on both sides of the football, with Minnesota gaining 431.8 yards per game on offense and allowing 300.1 ypg while the Badgers are averaging 442.3 ypg on offense and giving up 270.3 ypg on defense.
With these two teams coming into the game with similar numbers on both sides of the football, where do the advantages and disadvantages lie?
Both teams have NFL talent on both sides of the football, but what does differ between the two units, though, is where that talent can be found.
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The Badgers, as everyone knows, boast NFL-caliber offensive linemen and the best running back in the nation in Jonathan Taylor.
For the Gophers, conversely, that talent can be found on the outside.
Fleck’s offensive unit is built around sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan, someone who comes into Saturday’s game with just under 2700 yards, 26 touchdowns and a completion percentage just under 68%. Morgan is surrounded by a top-end receiving core, including NFL-bound players in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman.
Johnson and Bateman make Morgan’s job under center easy, and they come into Saturday with a combined tally of 117 catches for 2048 yards and 20 touchdowns. For perspective, the Badgers’ top receiving option Quintez Cephus enters Saturday with 40 catches for 606 yards and five touchdowns.
The defenses, again, enter Saturday with similar yardage numbers. What does differentiate the two units, though, are their interception and fumble numbers and how often each team gets to the opposing quarterback.
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Fleck’s defense enters Saturday with 14 interceptions — half of which are recorded by defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. alone — and just three fumble recoveries.
The Badgers, on the other hand, have recorded nine interceptions but have recovered eight fumbles.
With each unit getting their turnovers via different methods but each having forced the same number of total turnovers, where does the Badgers’ defensive advantage lie? The answer is seen with how often each team pressures the opposing quarterback.
The Gophers have sacked the opposing quarterback just 26 times this season. The Badgers, thanks to 20.5 alone from Chris Orr and Zack Baun, have recorded 38.
The game being played in Minnesota will no doubt give an advantage to the Gophers. But in the end, the game will be decided by which team’s big-time players make big-time plays.
For the Badgers, if Taylor and the offensive line dictate the game on offense and Orr and Baun disrupt Morgan’s rhythm on defense, they will come away with a victory.
For the Gophers, if Johnson and Bateman dominate the Badgers’ secondary and Winfield is able to turn Jack Coan over, they will keep the axe in Minneapolis.
Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday and will be televised on ABC in the biggest game of the season for both teams.