It’s Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Ax week for bitter border rivals the Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Golden Gophers. Those two teams have met 131 times, with Minnesota leading the overall series 62-61-8, including a 23-13 win in Minneapolis last season. The last five encounters have reflected the evenness of this rivalry, as the Badgers have won three of their last five competitions.
Related: College football predictions for every week 13 game
Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) suspended bowl eligibility for a 21st straight season as the Badgers recovered from a 14-3 deficit in the fourth quarter to defeat Nebraska 15-14 and maintain control of the Freedom Trophy. The win appears to be enough to secure the head coaching job for interim head coach Jim Leonhard, who has poured a lot of energy back into the program after the Badgers under former head coach Paul Chryst failed to meet their standards in a few weeks. It was a true test of Wisconsin’s ability to overcome adversity, as Lincoln weather was harsh, affecting both offenses. The loss of linebacker Nick Herbig to a well-aimed penalty and star running back Braelon Allen with a right leg injury late in the game tested that team’s resilience in the face of adversity. The team passed that test thanks to a combination of 235 rushing yards and the Cornhuskers’ 171 yards total offense limit.
Minnesota (7-4, 4-4) dropped another defensive slugfest as they lost 13-10 to Iowa last Saturday afternoon at Huntington Bank Stadium. After the Hawkeyes took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, the Gophers’ defense kicked in and kept them in the game as they kept Iowa scoreless late in the fourth quarter when Drew Stevens scored a 21-yard field goal scored with 28 seconds left. The Golden Gophers’ inability to play clean enough football — with two crucial second-half turnovers — cost them and wasted a 263-yard rushing performance from Mohamed Ibrahim, who earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors as a result.
Minnesota near Wisconsin
Kicking off: Saturday, November 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Live broadcast: fuboTV (start free trial)
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When Minnesota has the ball
Since quarterback Tanner Morgan’s upper-body injury, head coach PJ Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca have struggled to find a way to keep their passing game consistent. Redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis completed seven of 15 passes for 87 yards and one interception in his third career start. On the surface, protecting Kaliakmanis when the weather is below 20 degrees and it faces a robust defense like Iowa is understandable. At some point, however, the coaches will have to put the ball in Kaliakmanis’ hands and give him easy throws to throw the Badgers’ defense off balance. Daniel Jackson and Brevyn Spann-Ford need to catch at least eight passes together this week if the Golden Gophers are to get the job done and keep the ax in Minneapolis.
Wisconsin will challenge Minnesota to throw the football to beat them as there is no need to implement a different defensive strategy this week, even if Herbig is out in the first half of the game. The Badgers have done extremely well against the pass, limiting teams to 191.6 yards per game this season. Stopping the run wasn’t a problem for this defense either, as they only conceded 103.7 yards per game. They’re going to see a big dose of Ibrahim, and even if they allow him to run about 120 yards, it won’t cost them this week. The big thing they can’t let is Ibrahim go off for over 250 yards and set up the Golden Gophers to wear down the Wisconsin defense.
When Wisconsin has the ball
Graham Mertz’s two best performances of 2022 were against Northwestern and Purdue. Mertz completed 33 of 50 passes for 592 yards, seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. That’s largely the efficiency you’d expect from the quarterback position in the program. Unfortunately for Mertz, those two games are statistical outliers, which is one of the main reasons the Badgers are 6-5. The goal for Mertz this week is twofold. Firstly, don’t flip the football as he has thrown three interceptions in the last two games. The second is to find a way to create at least three to four explosive plays.
Minnesota’s robust defense needs to take advantage of Mertz’s inconsistent throwing and get at least a few turnovers to create great field position for their offense. They also need to keep the Badgers’ running play in check on first and second down to create those invaluable long-yard situations for their defense. The Golden Gophers were great defensively in third place as opponents converted just 25.6 percent of the time. If they don’t slow down the running game in Wisconsin, they’re in trouble.
This is a tricky game because if Morgan were to return from injury it would give Minnesota more balance on offense. If he doesn’t play and Kaliakmanis starts, it will be a fast-paced affair with few goals as both teams run the ball in tons. If Wisconsin signs Leonhard on permanently before Saturday morning’s game, the Badgers should be off to a great start. After the emotions subside, the game will level off and turn into a defensive slugfest with the Badgers winning by a point and increasing the quality of their bowl play.
Prediction: Wisconsin 17, Minnesota 13
Podcast: Week 13 preview, predictions, anti-spread tips, breakdown of the latest CFB playoff rankings, and coaching news and rumors
– Written by Scott Whittum who is part of the Contributor Network.
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