Written By Drew Cover (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski Photography
It’s another game of the century from Stadium Village on Saturday.
While the Penn State game reigned supreme for a month, the upcoming regular-season finale against the No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers takes the cake for being the biggest game for the No. 10 Minnesota Golden Gophers football program this season.
The Big Ten West title, a trip to Indianapolis and the right to possess Paul Bunyan’s Axe for a year are on the line. Anyone would say that is a lot riding on one game, and it is only fitting for, historically, one of the best rivalries in college football that just recently became competitive again for the first time in 15 years.
Oh, and ESPN’s College Gameday show will be shot live from the University of Minnesota campus for the first time ever to mark the important game.
OK — now that you’ve all caught your breath, how do the Gophers match up with the Badgers? Before this offensive and defensive comparison begins: the point spread, as of Monday evening, favors the Badgers at minus-2.5.
Minnesota has lost one game, while Wisconsin has lost two — one to Ohio State and the other coming at the hand of Illinois in a shocking, upset loss.
Just like when Minnesota and Penn State matched up, this time around the Gophers and Badgers are very similar on offense. Minnesota and Wisconsin are the second- and third-ranked scoring offenses in the Big Ten with Minnesota averaging 35.9 points per game and Wisconsin averaging 35.5.
Individually, there’s no hiding that running back Jonathan Taylor is the best rusher in college football and has dominated for the Badgers’ offense all season. He has a whopping 18 touchdowns and 1,685 yards on the ground this season. That averages to just over 153 yards per game.
Taylor is going to be the top focus for Minnesota’s defense due to his explosiveness. It is likely he will still rush well no matter how well defensive coordinator Joe Rossi and the Gophers prepare for him, as Taylor has done against opponents all season.
For Minnesota, the rushing game is a bit more balanced, but ruled by Rodney Smith. The Gophers have the advantage of three experienced backs to use against Wisconsin’s defensive front. The players will each give a new look and make it more difficult for the Badgers to keep up on each down.
In the Badgers passing game, junior Jack Coan is in his first year as a starter and has a slightly better completion percentage than Minnesota starter Tanner Morgan. Coan has completed just over 72 percent of his passes while Morgan has completed nearly 68 percent.
Besides completion percentages and interceptions, Morgan has Coan beat in personal stats. Morgan has thrown 11 more touchdown passes than Coan and averages nearly 60 yards more per game.
Wisconsin’s reliance on the pass has only gone so far as wide receiver Quintez Cephus has taken it. He leads the Badgers with 606 yards this season with five touchdowns. Tight end Jake Ferguson is far behind in second for yards but has been valuable in short yardage situations throughout the season.
Minnesota, on the other hand, is having a historic year with a duo of wide receivers already with more than 1,000 yards. Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman have carried the team’s offense with Morgan’s passing. The two each have 10 touchdowns and are averaging 93 yards per game.
The Gophers have multiple options in the passing game which is something Wisconsin’s secondary will have to plan for in its defensive back assignments throughout the game.
Defensively, the two teams are yet again very similar. Wisconsin and Minnesota are third and fourth, respectively, in the Big Ten for total defense. The Badgers have allowed 20 touchdowns this season while the Gophers have allowed 25.
Wisconsin’s defense is highlighted by a staunch, experienced defensive front. They have caused problems for opposing rushers all season, in addition to being able to get to the quarterback and get pressure quickly.
Senior linebackers Chris Orr and Zach Baun lead the way in sacks. Orr has 11 and Baun has 9.5, and the total yardage lost combined between the two is 149. Just look at this devastating sack from Orr against Northwestern earlier this season:
Minnesota’s defense has had many players step up through the season, but in this game, the defensive front and the top-two linebackers — Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber — will be key.
Wisconsin’s offense runs through Taylor, so Martin and Barber will need to be effective directing the defense on the field and making key tackles before Taylor has a chance to get into the secondary. Also, Martin has shown ability to get pressure on the quarterback this season, like this big hit from the Northwestern game last week:
Even if Coan and the Badgers try to go through the air, Gophers defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. will be there to continue his success this season that has gotten him nominated for the Bronko Nagurski award for the best defensive player in all of college football.
There’s a lot of hype around this game for both sides, and it is justified. Wisconsin is looking to get back the Axe after being upset last season. Minnesota is dealing with all the off-field festivities of being at home and the aura of ESPN being in town for the game.
Minnesota has a more balanced offense, but Taylor is one of the game’s best players right now. It should come down to defense and if the Wisconsin secondary can shut down Minnesota’s receivers, or if any defensive players for the Gophers can stop Taylor on the ground.