The teams: The No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers (8-3, 6-2) vs the Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-4, 5-3)
The time: 3 p.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Huntington Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.
The TV coverage: FOX with Tim Brando and Spencer Tillman on the call.
The last time: Wisconsin got a field goal from Collin Larsh in overtime to beat Minnesota 20-17 last December.
The series: Wisconsin lead 62-60-8
The line: Wisconsin -7
THE BREAKDOWN: 4 THINGS TO KNOW
1) For the West
Depending on Friday’s result between Nebraska and Iowa, along with Saturday’s contest between Purdue and Indiana, the game could decide which team represents the Big Ten West in the conference title game next week.
But that is only the case for Minnesota. When it comes to Wisconsin, just a win over the Gophers gives the Badgers the division crown and a trip to Indianapolis to play Michigan or Ohio State. If they get it done, it will serve as one of the more remarkable recoveries in school history, going from 1-3 overall and 0-2 in conference play to Big Ten West champions and the potential to earn their first Big Ten title since 2012.
2) Braelon Allen is rolling
There is not a hotter running back in the country than Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen. With his 228-yard, three touchdown effort against Nebraska, Allen joined Ron Dayne, James White, and Jonathan Taylor as the only true freshmen in school history to run for 1,000 yards in a season. He has done it in just the last seven games (1,013 yards, 11 TDs) as the Badgers have run for more yards than any other team in the country during their winning streak.
Minnesota should provide a test for Allen and company. The Gophers are ranked 12th in the country against the run, allowing 103.6 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. While the Badgers have run for at least 200 yards in five of their last seven games, Minnesota has not given up that many yards since the season opener against Ohio State.
3) Strength on strength
Minnesota is a run first team. No school in the Big Ten, including Wisconsin, has run it more than the Gophers 513 attempts this year. That has come despite them losing their top three running backs to injury, including star Mo Ibrahim in the season opener. They are not the best rushing attack in the conference (204 ypg, 4.4 ypc), but they have shown a willingness to stick with it.
That commitment will be put to the test against Wisconsin. The Badgers are still stopping the run better than anyone else in the country at 59.8 yards per game. Teams are averaging just 2.0 yards per carry and only two have topped 3.0 in a game this season.
If the season-long trend of Wisconsin stopping the run holds, it could be a long day for quarterback Tanner Morgan and a shaky Minnesota passing game.
4) Graham Mertz making plays
When Wisconsin’s offense was struggling, even during the early portion of its current seven-game winning streak, it was because the passing game was not holding up its end of the bargain. But over the last three games – and parts of the two before that – quarterback Graham Mertz has started to play good football.
The sophomore has completed 72% of his passes in the last 12 quarters with six touchdowns and just two interceptions. His passer rating of 188.2 in those games would rank No. 2 in the country if extrapolated over the entire season. It has been, clearly, the best three-game stretch of his career, and it has totally changed the narrative around the once maligned Wisconsin offense.
It is possible Minnesota will be able to slow Allen but that will not completely stamp out Wisconsin’s chances of winning like it might have earlier in the year.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
When Barry Alvarez took over the Wisconsin program in 1990, Minnesota led the all-time series 54-37-8. In the 31 games since, the Badgers are 25-6 and now own the series lead 62-60-8. That includes going 16-1 in the last 17 matchups.
Since throwing 30 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in his All-Big Ten season in 2019, Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan has thrown 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions the last two seasons combined. His passer rating has also dropped from 178.7 in his sophomore campaign to 130.5 as a junior and senior.
Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal was named a Butkus Award finalist this week. The award goes to the top linebacker in the country. Despite missing the first two games of the season, Chenal leads the Badgers in tackles (92) and tackles for loss (15.5), while ranking second in sacks (6.5). Pro Football Focus has him as the second-highest graded linebacker in the country.