The quest to make November a month to remember is still intact as No.14 Wisconsin finally found a way to win a one possession game able to find a way to win a close game over Iowa. With the victory over the Hawkeyes, Wisconsin still needs to beat Minnesota in order to represent the Big Ten West division in Indianapolis.
With the winner of Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) and Minnesota (8-3, 5-2) advancing to the Big Ten title game against No.7 Ohio State in Indianapolis, this year’s battle for the Axe will actually have significant meaning.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from last week, expectations this coming week, and need. It was not easy determining who would play an important role in helping the Badgers win the Paul Bunyan’s Axe but also to represent the Big Ten West.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses
1, Melvin Gordon RB (1): Although Iowa was able to contain Gordon in the first half, they couldn’t contain him the entire game. Rushing for at least 200 yards for the sixth time in his career, Gordon proved what a special player he is. Minnesota will likely follow the same game plan at Iowa, but where Gordon can beat defenses is his ability to catch passes out of the backfield, which he showed in crunch time against Iowa (career-high 64 yards on four catches). Gordon successfully catching the football should be able to draw some Gophers out of the box, which should allow him to have success running. The pace Gordon is going at he should be able to find a way to have success rushing the football as Minnesota ranks sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed at 154.6 yards a game.
Gordon has scored at least one touchdown in every single game this season and will be counted on to continue that streak on Saturday, especially if Wisconsin can get in the red zone. The Gophers rank 12th in red zone defense and have allowed 11 red-zone rushing touchdowns.
As important as Gordon is in helping move the football down the field, he can’t afford a fumble, which has been a struggle of his in the last three games (four fumbles, three lost). Minnesota has forced 14 fumbles on the season, second best in the Big Ten. Gordon’s fumbles haven’t hurt Wisconsin in the long run, but he’s playing with fire.
2, Joel Stave QB (4): This game could simply come down to quarterback play and which one can make the most plays. Stave is coming off his best performance of the season, and he is going to need to make the same type of plays he did against Iowa. Minnesota ranks eighth in pass defense, allowing 200.3 passing yards per game, and has tallied just 23 sacks (10th in the league), suggesting Stave should have a chance at having success through the air. With Stave completing 78.6 percent (11-for-14) of his passes against Iowa, he should be able to find similar success as he goes through his progressions on pass plays. Even though Stave has only attempts 16.8 passes a game since his return, he does need to be careful of a Gophers secondary that has intercepted 13 passes. Stave in particular will need to be aware of where Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who leads the Gophers with four interceptions and 11 pass deflections.
Minnesota has shown all year to have a good defense but struggles at times to get off the field on third down, allowing their opponents to convert on 41.1 percent of their chances, which ranks 11th in the Big Ten. Stave and the offense is trending in the right direction, completing a season-best 7-of-13 on third down against Iowa.
3, Vince Biegel OLB (2): For the first time this year the pass rush was missing at Iowa, as Wisconsin’s defense was stymied by the Hawkeyes’ line. In order for Wisconsin to slow down the Gophers offense they will have to stop the Minnesota rushing attack first, which is averaging 228.9 yards a contest. Tailback David Cobb is listed as questionable for this weekend, an injury that will hurt the offense and put more focus on quarterback Mitch Leidner, who is second on the team with 407 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. Wisconsin has success keeping containment of the running back, only allowing 103.2 yards a game in Big Ten play, but have struggled with mobile quarterbacks.
Like Wisconsin, the Gophers want to run the football because their passing game ranks last in the Big Ten, and Leidner is completing 51.1 percent of his passes. Biegel has been the most consistent pass rusher since Big Ten began, as he leads Wisconsin with 14.5 tackles for loss and is second in sacks with 6.5. If Biegel can help stop the run game it force Minnesota into passing situations, the plays right into Wisconsin’s game plan.
4, Michael Caputo S (5): Caputo led Wisconsin with 11 tackles, solid in pass coverage and forced a fumble he was able to recover. Caputo will be relied heavily in pass coverage to help slow down Maxx Williams, who leads Minnesota in receptions (28), receiving yards (418) and touchdowns (seven). Williams is one of the main reasons why the Gophers rank third in red zone offense with his ability to be a threat pass catching or run blocking, but he is also capable of busting a big play.
5, Marcus Trotter MLB (3): Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen mentioned that Trotter played one of his most consistent games after finishing with eight tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. Trotter has been stout all season against the run and will be counted upon to slow down Minnesota’s running game. Without Cobb in the lineup or a limited Cobb, the other three backs for Minnesota have struggled, only combining for 318 yards rushing. In order for Minnesota getting to the point of needing to throw the ball, Trotter and his cohorts will need to prevent being gashed for a big play.
If Trotter can have success in stopping the run at the line of scrimmage or making a play behind the line on either first or second down, it should help put the Gophers in position on third down that isn’t favorable for them. Minnesota ranks fifth in the Big Ten on third down conversion (41.2 percent) and with Wisconsin ranking second in third down defense it could result in plenty of three and outs by forcing Leidner to make plays in the pass game.
6, Rob Havenstein RT (6): Like the Iowa game, Havenstein is going to have to be able to consistently win his battle in the trenches in order for Gordon to have success running the football. Minnesota’s defensive line doesn’t have a huge threat off the edge who can consistently get after Stave on passing downs, but Havenstein still needs to be aware of where defensive end Thieren Cockran is, Cockran is second among the Gophers defensive line in tackles for loss (five) and sacks (three).
Havenstein will play a big part in whether or not Wisconsin can control the clock. A common theme in Wisconsin’s two losses this season has been the Badgers losing the time of possession battle, as they only had the football for about 29 minutes of the game. Winning the time of possession will mean the offense is staying on the football field, increasing the opportunity for Gordon to make a big play.
7, Darius Hillary CB (NR): Hillary has been solid all year and should be able to bounce back from an uneven performance against Iowa. The junior cornerback will likely be matched up with Issac Fruechte, who has hasn’t been much of a factor in the passing game with 14 receptions, 269 yards and one touchdown. With Hillary struggling at times against Iowa, the Gophers could go after Hillary to see if they can have the same success, something that will likely change if Hillary makes some big plays early. Although he doesn’t have an interception, Hillary has 29 tackles and 10 pass breakups and deflections. If the linebackers can bring the consistent pass rush, it will make Hillary’s job easier because he won’t be in coverage for long. If Hillary can do his job, Leidner will likely struggle, as he only has one game of over 200 yards passing on the season and is averaging 131.6 yards through the air.
Others to Note
Sam Arneson TE: When Wisconsin gets to third downs, it is likely that Arneson will be targeted on the play. During the game against Iowa, Arneson was targeted twice on third down and made a big 13-yard third-down catch on third-and-11. Just like last week, Wisconsin will likely rely on Arneson and breakout redshirt freshman Troy Fumagalli to make a big catch or block to move the chains. Regardless of the route Arneson runs on third down he has been able to get behind the linebackers and has shown a good awareness of where he needs to be on the field in order to pick up the first down.
Rafael Gaglianone K: The true freshman made up for a missed extra point by hitting two key field goals, including a 50-yard attempt in the first quarter. Once again Gaglianone will have to be ready to covert if the offense stalls to at least make sure Wisconsin comes away with three points. Gaglianone ranks third in the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 83.3 and second in average points a game amongst kickers at 8.7.
Tanner McEvoy QB: McEvoy has been adjusting to his role well in the Wisconsin offense and his effectiveness as a runner (560 rushing yards) should help keep Minnesota off guard. With Minnesota giving up 11 rushing touchdowns in the red zone, it is possible that Offensive Coordinator Andy Ludwig calls for the diamond package with Corey Clement and Gordon lined up each on one of McEvoy’s side with Kenzel Doe lined up behind him. With that many rushing threats on the field it could be difficult for the Gophers to defend.
Joe Schobert OLB: Schobert only recorded three tackles against Iowa and, like Biegel, will be key in helping supply the pressure on Leidner so he can’t consistently pick up yards on scrambles. Leidner also has eight interceptions on the year, so Schobert has the ability to generate some turnovers for Wisconsin if he can supply a consistent pass rush.