Wisconsin has spoiled other programs senior days but has struggled lately to send its own class off with one last home win. Since the 2012 season, the Badgers are 1-3 on senior day. The only win over that time frame? Beating Minnesota in a winner-take-all game for the Big Ten West.
With Wisconsin’s senior class accumulating 39 wins over the last four seasons, win number 40 means the Badgers keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 13th straight season.
Here are BadgerNation’s five keys to a Wisconsin victory against Minnesota.
1, Slow Down Minnesota’s Running Back Duo
Wisconsin certainly has been stout against the run this year, as four of Wisconsin’s last five opponents have been held under 100 team rushing yards. In fact only four teams have gone over 100 team rushing yards against Wisconsin, but Minnesota is more than capable of having success in the run game. The Gophers rely on the combination of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who have rushed for 1,039 and 562 yards, respectively, and do well of falling forward to avoid being tackled behind the line of scrimmage. It’s important that Wisconsin wins the trenches to allow inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly to stop any impactful gains up the middle.
2, Establish The Run
Over the last six games Wisconsin has rushed for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns, and the trio of Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw have been responsible for 1,226 of those yards. Like Wisconsin, Minnesota has shown they’re capable of slowing down the run, allowing just 116.6 yards a game. However, when Minnesota has gone against strong rushing teams such as Maryland (195.3 yards a game), Penn State (187.9 yards a game), Nebraska (186.2 yards a game) and Iowa (163.5 yards a game) the Gophers have allowed those four teams to eclipse 130 rushing yards. Wisconsin is averaging 200.7 rushing yards a game, which ranks third in the conference and Clement can expect to see his fair share of carries. Clement’s physical rushing style should be able to help open up opportunities for Ogunbowale and Shaw to have success. If Wisconsin’s trio of runners can wear down Minnesota’s front, it should allow for one of them to eventually have a successful run.
3, Getting After Mitch Leidner
Wisconsin has struggled with mobile quarterbacks at times this year, and although Leidner may not be as athletic as either J.T. Barrett or Tommy Armstrong, he’s more than capable of hurting Wisconsin. Leidner is third on the team with 294 yards rushing and has rushed for six touchdowns in Big Ten play compared to only two passing touchdowns.
The senior quarterback’s ability to escape has prevented him from getting hit, only taking eight sacks in conference play, which should be a good test for outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt to create backfield pressure. The duo have combined for four tackles for loss and two sacks over the last two games. Delivering that pressure should contain Leidner and force him to throw the football, far from his strengths as a quarterback.
4, Convert on Third Down
Converting on third down was a struggle for Wisconsin early this season. That’s begun to change since the start of conference play, as the Badgers rank third in the conference in third down conversion (43.1 percent). Minnesota has held opponents to a 37.3 percent success rate on third down over eight Big Ten games. By relying on its running game, Wisconsin has been able to create third-and-short situations and pick up the one or two yards to keep a drive alive. If Minnesota is able to contain Wisconsin’s running games, the Badgers could face third-and-medium or third-and-long more often, making the combination of Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston important to make the throw to help keep drives alive.
5, Protect the Football
Wisconsin turned the ball over in seven of its first eight games but has played turnover free in its last three games. That streak will be tested against a Minnesota defense that has a plus-8 turnover margin in Big Ten play, best in the conference. In particular Minnesota has done well of causing fumbles with 11 during conference play. Expected to be a physical game with yards tough to come by, Wisconsin can’t afford to be cavalier carrying the football. Three different players for Minnesota have forced two fumbles and four different players have registered two fumble recoveries since the start of Big Ten play. If Wisconsin wants to control the clock, they can’t afford to have drives cut short because of a turnover.
The game plan for Wisconsin isn’t going to change from what it has been over the last two weeks. Paul Chryst will once again put an emphasis on establishing the run, which will be a challenge to establish with the physicality expected in the trenches. Wisconsin hasn’t had to rely on the passing attack much over the last two games but the Gophers do allow 235.1 passing yards. Having any kind of success through the air will take pressure off Wisconsin’s running game and help neutralize the Gophers’ ability to create pressure in the backfield. Considering Minnesota has caused opposing rushing attacks to lose an average of 34.4 rushing yards a game, Wisconsin’s running backs will need to be able to pick up the tough yards and the line will need to get the better push so the offense doesn’t work behind the chains.
Success on offense means Wisconsin’s defense will be able to rest and stay fresh. Minnesota’s offense averages 348.6 yards of total offense over conference play, while Wisconsin’s defense has allowed opponents to average 304.4 yards of total offense through eight Big Ten games. Stopping the run is first and foremost for the Badgers, and UW’s secondary – after giving up some big plays to Purdue – need to limit receiver Drew Wolitarsky. Taking away the running game and Wolitarsky will expose Leidner.
Biegel said this week he doesn’t want to leave any doubt as to who the best team is in the Big Ten West Division. The combination of Biegel and Watt should be able to find their way to Leidner, despite him not feeling a lot of heat this season, and the Badgers’ defense has enough talent to keep Minnesota’s offense in check. Wisconsin’s offense will do its job and make sure to capitalize when they need to.
Bottom line, the Axe stays in Madison with a 24-10 Wisconsin win.