The most played rivalry in college football is set to renew itself when Wisconsin travels to Minnesota to close out the regular season. Wisconsin is coming off a disappointing loss to Northwestern, but the Badgers have posted an 11-2 record over the last four years following a loss. If Wisconsin hopes to keep that trend going, they will need to be ready to for another dogfight against a team that needs one win to be bowl eligible and a program that wants to end an 11-year losing streak.
Here are BadgerNation’s five keys to a victory for Wisconsin (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) in its 125th meeting against Minnesota (5-6, 2-5) as Wisconsin is set to battle Minnesota to keep possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
1, Keeping Joel Stave upright
Over the last two games Stave has been under constant duress in the pocket, which has thrown off the timing of the entire offense. It seems that Stave is consistently being blindsided by hits and had to miss the last offensive play of the Northwestern game because of it. Stave will start if he passes the concussion protocol and will be looking to bounce back from a below-average performance against the Wildcats. Of course, if his offensive line doesn’t pass protect for him, Stave won’t have time to see the field, much less be able to set his feet to throw.
2, Defensive encore performance
After holding Northwestern to only 13 points, Wisconsin will have to find a scheme that can slow down a Minnesota offense that scored 35 points at Iowa two weeks ago and 32 last weekend against Illinois. Averaging 22.5 points on the season, part of that reason is due to the improve play of quarterback Mitch Leidner, who is averaging 205 yards a game. Over the last couple of weeks Leidner has had simpler reads when he drops back to pass and has had given protection from his line, only being sacked twice in the last three games. If Wisconsin’s linebackers can find ways of pressuring him and forcing him to pass off his back foot, it could lead into a Gophers turnover.
3, Winning field position
In the loss to Northwestern, Wisconsin’s defense was put in a poor spot too often by having to defend the Wildcats consistently on a short field. For a Wisconsin offense that is struggling, the UW defense needs to contribute by keeping Minnesota’s drives short and making sure Wisconsin doesn’t have a long field to work with. If the offense continues to turn the ball over inside Wisconsin’s territory, the defense will have to find a way to keep Minnesota off the scoreboard.
4, Converting on third down
Wisconsin’s rhythm on offense will come down to whether or not it can convert on third down. Wisconsin ranks seventh in the Big Ten in third down conversion (39.7 percent) while Minnesota allows its opponents to convert 40.4 percent of the time, which ranks 11th in the league. If Wisconsin can get it to third and manageable, the offense will have options on how they want to try and keep the offense on the field. Being able to consistently keep drives alive will allow Wisconsin’s defense to stay fresh, not to mention prevent Minnesota’s offense from having too many possessions. Wisconsin’s time of possession is best in the conference at 34 minutes, 17 seconds per game.
5, Red zone success
Wisconsin was unable to punch the football in from the 1-yard line against Northwestern, a microcosm of how the season has gone. Wisconsin ranks 11th in the Big Ten in red-zone offense, having registered 29 touchdowns and eight field goals, but Minnesota’s defense has struggled to keep teams out of the end zone. The Gophers allowed teams to convert 87.2 percent of the time and have allowed 39 attempts inside their red zone, the fifth highest number of attempts in the Big Ten. It will be important for Wisconsin to consistently come away with points. With the way things have gone for UW, there might not be many opportunities.
If Stave and the offense put on a better performance than last weekend, the game will be competitive. The Gophers will be playing with a lot of emotion on Saturday and Stave will need to make sure Wisconsin can match it from the start. If the defense lives up to its stingy nature and the Badgers limit the turnovers, miscues and miscommunications, Wisconsin will win, 20-13.