Minnesota travels to Madison to continue the most played rivalry in college football. Wisconsin leads the series 62-61-8. Minnesota beat Wisconsin 23–13 last year in Minneapolis. The Gophers are looking to beat Wisconsin in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1993-1994.
Not only is Wisconsin looking to win back Paul Bunyan’s Axe, they are seeking a seventh victory that would clinch a winning season. Wisconsin last finished with a record of .500 or lower in 2001.
Before every game, I’ll ask a reporter who covers the Gophers’ upcoming opponent to give us a view from the opponent’s perspective.
I asked Rohan Chakravarthi from Bucky’s 5th Quarter of SBNation six questions to give us some inside details and perspective on Wisconsin.
Minnesota travels to Madison and takes on Wisconsin at 2:30 p.m. local time on Saturday.
Huge thanks to Rohan for giving us his thoughts!
Follow Rohan on Twitter: @RohanChakrav
Follow Bucky’s 5th Quarter on Twitter: @B5Q
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1. Wisconsin finished the 2021 season with an overall record of 9-4, and 6-3 in conference play. Many had the Badgers winning the division this year, but head coach Paul Chryst was fired after a home loss to Illinois five games into the season. Now enters Jim Leonhard, who is presumed to be the next head coach. How would you evaluate Leonhard’s performance so far? What are the odds he isn’t the Badgers’ next head coach?
Leonhard’s performance has been strong enough to earn him the full-time job. Obviously, at the time when the Badgers were 2-3 after the loss to Illinois, there was a resounding sense of disappointment in the locker room. Now, it’s clear that the energy has returned and that the players are riding for Jim Leonhard as their coach. He’s maneuvered through a rocky season and compiled a 4-2 record, while pushing the team to bowl eligibility. I have full confidence that Leonhard will be the next head coach, based on player response and information from a source, and that could come soon after Wisconsin posted the job last weekend, which is a law in the state.
2. Braelon Allen leads the team in rushing with 1,121 yards and 10 touchdowns. The sophomore is averaging 5.4 yards per rush this season. Allen left the game last week in the fourth quarter with a leg injury. What is his status for this weekend? If he can’t play, can you give us a scouting report on the tailbacks who will be taking his place?
Allen currently is battling through a number of injuries, as he’s also nursing a shoulder injury, which Jim Leonhard acknowledged would likely carry with him until the end of the season. If Allen were to go, you could see a run-heavy approach similar to last week, where Allen, Chez Mellusi, and Isaac Guerendo split carries. If Allen cannot go, Mellusi and Guerendo would likely split the majority of the carries. Mellusi isn’t necessarily an explosive back and doesn’t possess elite traits, but he’s a hard, downfield runner that is the epitome of consistency for Wisconsin. Guerendo is the more explosive back, possessing the requisite speed to hit the edge, while also having the vision to operate between the tackles.
3. The Wisconsin offense ranks eighth in the conference, averaging 365.4 yards per game. The passing game is 11th in the conference, while the running game is 6th. From afar, it seems that the offense is dictated a lot by the play of Graham Mertz, who has struggled to maintain consistency. Is that a fair assumption? How would you grade the junior quarterbacks’ play this season?
That can be a fair assumption, especially when factoring in the last few games. Mertz had a solid start to the season, compiling a 63.3% completion rate and a 17:6 touchdown-interception ratio through Wisconsin’s first eight games. However, his footwork remains inconsistent and he continuously bails out of empty pockets, making it harder on his offensive line. His performance hasn’t been great overall this season, which could be an indicator of why Wisconsin may look to the transfer portal for some competition at the position at the end of the year.
4. Over the last month, the Badgers’ defense has really turned it up a notch. In their last four games, they have allowed 14.5 points per game. What are the strengths of the defense? How do you think they match up against Minnesota?
The Badgers defense started to excel after the return of top cornerback Alexander Smith. Wisconsin had previously been beaten consistently over the top, which had led to explosive plays for opposing offenses. However, the health of Smith and safety Hunter Wohler has strengthened the backend of the defense, which allows defensive linemen Nick Herbig and Keeanu Benton to operate around the trenches. Their biggest strength has been run defense, which has been fairly stout all season, making for an intriguing matchup against Minnesota and Mo Ibrahim, who Jim Leonhard praised this week. Defensively, they’ll look to force Tanner Morgan to beat them through the air, which will likely require a strong passing attack over the middle. This game could be a defensive shootout, given the way both teams have played recently.
5. Can you give us an impact player on offense and defense that Minnesota fans should know about?
Offensively, since I’ve spoken about the running backs, I’ll go with receiver Skyler Bell. Chimere Dike is Wisconsin’s top wideout and will likely require significant attention, both on the outside and out of the slot, but Bell has been an emerging weapon as a redshirt freshman for the Badgers. He’s been utilized not only as a good route-running receiver on the outside, but also as a runner with a variety of jet sweeps that have averaged 10.5 yards per carry this season. His multi-dimensional ability could lead to some explosive plays this weekend.
Defensively, Nick Herbig is the star with a team-high 11 sacks and two forced fumbles, while Keeanu Benton has been a vital cog in the middle for the Badgers. So, I’ll go with Rodas Johnson, who has quietly compiled a strong season alongside those two on the defensive line. Johnson consistently gets into the backfield, both as a pass-rusher and as a run-defender, breaking up plays, which may not be seen on the stat sheet with his one sack this season. Johnson has progressed as the season’s continued, and was a key reason why Wisconsin’s defense has elevated over the last few weeks.
6. This Saturday will be the 132nd meeting between the two rivals, as they battle for one of the coolest trophies in college football, Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Minnesota originally opened as 7-point underdogs, but that has now changed to 3-point underdogs. The Gophers reclaimed the Axe in a 23–13 victory over Wisconsin in Minneapolis last year. What does Wisconsin need to do to get the Axe from Minnesota? What is your prediction for the game?
To win this game, Wisconsin must continue its efforts in the running game on both sides of the football. Defensively, they must stop Mo Ibrahim, who’s averaged 5.5 yards per carry and accumulated 19 touchdowns this season. The Badgers have recently been able to shut down strong rushing attacks, but didn’t fare well in the second half against Chase Brown in Week 4, who rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown on 5.2 yards per carry. Offensively, they must continue running the ball with the uncertainty that Graham Mertz provides, relying on their trio of running backs. However, in passing situations, the receivers have to figure out ways to separate to make Mertz’s job easier. Overall, I do think this matchup will be a close game, unlike some predictions, but I have Wisconsin pulling out a victory and reclaiming the Axe this year.