GopherIllustrated's Ryan Burns previews Minnesota's final regular season game against the Wisconsin Badgers for Paul Bunyan's Axe

GopherIllustrated's Ryan Burns previews Minnesota's final regular season game against the Wisconsin Badgers for Paul Bunyan's Axe

Minnesota (8-3) vs. Wisconsin (9-2)

Time: 2:30 P.M. CT, Saturday, November 19th

TV: BTN - Kevin Kugler (Play by Play), Matt Millen (Analyst) and Lisa Bylington (Sideline)

Last week: Minnesota beat Northwestern at home 29-12, and Wisconsin beat Purdue 49-20 on the road

All-time series: Minnesota 59-58-8 (Wisconsin won 31-21 in November of 2015 at TCF Bank Stadium)

Vegas betting line: Wisconsin (-14.5)

Depth Chart

Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Wisconsin Publisher Benjamin Worgull

Five things you need to know

1. Minnesota travels to Wisconsin on Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. game. The Gophers lead the all-time series 59-58-8 but have lost the last 12 games. Minnesota last won in 2003, when it posted a 37-34 home win. At 125 games and counting, the series ranks as the longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision of NCAA Division I. Since 1948, the teams have been playing for Paul Bunyan’s Axe and had previously played for the Slab of Bacon trophy

2. This year’s senior class (2013-16) has won 30 games (8 in 2013, 8 in 2014, 6 in 2015 and 8 in 2016), which is the most since 2006 when that class also won 30. The 2005 class won 32 games (8 in 2002, 10 in 2003, 7 in 2004 and 7 in 2005). Prior to the 2005 class, the last class to win at least 30 games was the 1905 class as it won 46 games (9 in 1902, 14 in 1903, 13 in 1904 and 10 in 1905). This year’s seniors were 20-8 at TCF Bank Stadium.

3. Minnesota is 5-3 in the Big Ten and is guaranteed a winning conference record for the second time in three years (also 5-3 in 2014). Prior to 2014, Minnesota last had a winning Big Ten record in 2003 when it went 5-3. The last time Minnesota had a winning Big Ten record in two out of three years was 1968 (5-2 in B1G) and 1969 (4-3 in B1G). Since 1970, Minnesota has now had a winning record in the Big Ten seven times (1973, 1986, 1990, 1999, 2003, 2014 and 2016). The last time Minnesota won six Big Ten games in a season was 1973 (6-2). Minnesota started Big Ten play 0-2, but then rattled off four straight wins against Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue. The Gophers last won four straight Big Ten games in 2013, when they beat Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. Head coach Tracy Claeys was the acting head coach in 2013 when Minnesota won those four games, as then-head coach Jerry Kill was dealing with health issues. Prior to 2013, the last time Minnesota won four straight Big Ten games was in 1973.

4. Minnesota is 8-3 this year and also won eight games in 2013 and 2014. The last time Minnesota won eight games three times in a four-year span was 1903-05 (14, 13 and 10 wins). The Gophers have now won at least eight games in a season 20 times in school history and nine times since 1942 (six times since 1968). The last time the Gophers won nine games in a season was 2003 when they won 10 games. Before that it was 1905, when they also won 10 games. Minnesota will play in its fifth straight bowl game (19th overall) this year. The streak of five consecutive bowls is tied for the longest streak in program history (2002-2006). Minnesota snapped a seven-game bowl losing streak last year with a win in the Quick Lane Bowl.

5. Emmit Carpenter leads Minnesota with 99 points, while Rodney Smith is second with 96 points. Carpenter and Smith combine to form the fourth-highest scoring duo in the nation with 195 points (Louisiana Tech’s Carlos Henderson / Jonathan Barnes 231, Washington’s Cameron Van Winkle / John Ross 204, Penn State’s Tyler Davis and Saquon Barkley 200). The last and only time that Minnesota had two players score 100 or more points in a season was 2003 when Marion Barber III had 102 and Rhys Lloyd had 101.

Wisconsin players to watch

1) Alex Hornibrook, quarterback: Hornibrook is still the starter, but Houston has been a getting a handful of series and has made the most of it. Houston has the stronger arm and is more mobile than Hornibrook, bringing a zone-read element to UW’s attack. Hornibrook threw for 197 yards in the first game of the two QB system but has been held under 100 yards in each of the last four games and certainly hasn’t looked completely comfortable.

2) Corey Clement, running back: Clement’s return has been huge for Wisconsin, who were a mess last year without him healthy. He’s run for 100 yards in five of the last six games and has carried the burden (27.2 carries over the past six weeks). 

3) T.J. Watt, linebacker: Watt helped hold the unit together when senior OLB Vince Biegel missed two games following foot surgery. Watt and Biegel play tremendously well off each other, as teams that have chosen to double team and avoid Biegel run into Watt. Watt is having an All-Big Ten year with 49 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, nine quarterback hurries and his tremendously athletic interception last week that he returned for a 17-yard touchdown against Purdue.

Keys to the game

1. Keep Wisconsin's offense away from third and short: Entering Saturday, Wisconsin leads the nation in time of possession, at an average of 35:24 per game, and if Minnesota's going to have a shot at winning this game in Madison, they have to limit the amount of time that the Badgers have the ball. 

The issues that Minnesota could fall into is that this Badgers team isn't like any of the teams they've faced in recent weeks. Northwestern last week was a three wide receiver, one tight end team that matched up well with the Gophers loving to play nickle a large majority of their snaps, but looking at the game this weekend, Wisconsin is going to be rolling out three tight ends on occasion, so that's going to limit the amount of times that the Gophers should be going with that many defensive backs. 

Minnesota's defensive line is going to have to play as well as they did last week with controlling the line of scrimmage, so that means big performances from Steven RichardsonScott EkpeMerrick Jackson and Andrew Stelter all day long. Minnesota's stout run defense is going to be tested, and they're going to have a large part of the say in if Minnesota's going to win this game. If they can keep Wisconsin out of third and three and less for the majority of the afternoon, that's going to force Wisconsin to pass and Minnesota's got a much better shot to stop them there then on these third and shorts.

Gophers can't score points if they don't have the ball on offense, and the Badgers’ defense has been fantastic as 53.3 percent of possessions held by UW’s opponents this season have lasted two minutes or less. Teams simply can’t drive the ball consistently against the Badgers. 

The defense has to get off the field on third down if Minnesota's going to have a chance against the Badgers.

2. Have to be able to run the ball and hit on a deep shot: It's not a revelation to say that Minnesota's offensive line has been struggling to open lanes for their running backs all season as the Gophers currently rank 113th in SBNation's Adjusted Line Yards, but they need some help from their passing game and offensive coordinator. 

I 110% expect the Badgers to put at least seven guys in the box on every play and we'll likely see eight in there more times than not as Minnesota has to give this vaunted Wisconsin defense a reason to respect the pass. The Gophers themselves have to be able to run the ball around three yards a clip, or this offense is going to be put in third and long situations against one of the best defenses in the country, and for a passing offense that's struggling coming in, that's not a recipe for success. Minnesota comes into this game as the 116th best team (out of 128 FBS teams) on "Passing Downs", which is defined as second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, or fourth-and-5 or more. 

Mitch Leidner is going to have to play the game of his career if the Gophers are going to win this game. He's going to have to complete over 60% of his passes, take care of the ball and be accurate with his deep ball. Most importantly there, Leidner has to value the ball, especially in the second half this weekend. Three interceptions in the second half last year, and he's had multiple takeaways that have cost Minnesota dearly this season. If Leidner can be accurate and take care of the ball, Minnesota's offense is going to have a chance.

3. Come out and play loose: There is significantly more pressure on the Badgers this weekend then there is with Minnesota. The Badgers are playing for a chance in the Big Ten Championship game, and have aspirations of potentially gaining a seat in the College Football Playoff if they win their final two games here. 

When you look at Minnesota, sure they want to get the Axe back for the first time since 2003 and the first time in Madison since 1994, but the pressure is on Wisconsin to make sure continue to win. Minnesota's key players on offense and defense played in that 2014 game where Minnesota blew a double digit first half lead are still on the 2016 team, and they can preach to these underclassmen that they can win in Madison. They were doing it just two years ago. 

Wisconsin is the team that has everything to lose with a loss, and Minnesota has everything to gain. 

Prediction

Here's the scenario where Minnesota pulls off the upset. 

Mitch Leidner takes care of the ball, and is efficient with his receivers in the passing game, completing a couple of deep play action shots to keep the Badger safeties honest. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are able to combine for 175 rushing yards and a couple of scores behind the offensive line's best run blocking performance of the season. The Minnesota defense puts Wisconsin in third and five + all day and Alex Hornibrook struggles to connect with his receivers. Emmit Carpenter connects from 47 yards late in the 4th and Minnesota gets the Axe back. 

I don't entirely believe that's a likely scenario however as Minnesota's really struggled to move the ball on the ground of late, and if Leidner is forced to be in third and longs all game, I don't see the Gophers offense having a ton of success. Minnesota's defense is going to have to get off the field on third down or else the Badgers time of possession lead is going to remain what it is. 

Ultimately, Minnesota has their chances in the second half like they have all season against these type of opponents, but the Badgers pull away late to retain the Axe.

Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 17


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