The Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe
Once again, Minnesota faces off against a team similar to themselves, with a trophy on the line, in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Here’s a look at the similarities and differences between the Gophers and the Badgers ahead of the game.
As you might expect (it is the Big Ten, after all) both teams are stout on defense. Minnesota ranks 10th in FBS against the run, just one spot higher than Wisconsin. Both are allowing a little over 100 yards per game on the ground. After allowing 263 yards to Mohamed Ibrahim last week, Iowa dropped from eighth to 17th in run defense; the Badgers and Gophers now trail only Michigan in the Big Ten.
In total defense, the Gophers rank 7th, and the Badgers 12th.
Offensively, neither team has a particularly noteworthy passing attack. Wisconsin, 112th in passing offense, has had three games all season with a 100-yard receiver; Minnesota, 119th, has had just two. However, that’s partly a function of the Badgers’ ability to spread the ball around. They have eight players with at least 100 receiving yards on the season, and eight with at least one touchdown catch. Minnesota has six in each category, one of whom (Chris Autman-Bell) was lost for the season in Week Three.
Both teams are bowl-eligible; Minnesota sits at 7-4 and Wisconsin at 6-5. (Curious about where both teams might be going? Here are our Week 12 Bowl Projections).
Obviously, the biggest difference is in the run game. It’s thanks to Ibrahim that Minnesota has the ninth-best rushing attack in FBS and that its one game all season without a 100-yard rusher was the one game Ibrahim missed due to injury.
Now, Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen is a pretty good back himself. He’d probably get more attention if he didn’t share a conference with Ibrahim, Chase Brown of Illinois, and Michigan’s Blake Corum. Allen has led the Badgers in rushing in nine of their 11 games and has gone over 100 yards in six of them. But Wisconsin’s run game ranks just 51st in FBS, and it averages 176 yards per game on the ground. Minnesota, on the other hand, has rushed for just under 230 yards per game.
Another big difference is the teams’ quarterbacks. Graham Mertz is a third-year starter, while we expect the Gophers to put freshman Athan Kaliakmanis behind center for a third straight game. As you’d expect, Mertz is a much more polished passer. Kaliakmanis is more mobile, and has a huge arm, but needs to work on accuracy.
Wisconsin’s run defense will make the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe another difficult game for Minnesota, as the offense basically goes as Ibrahim takes it. To further complicate matters, the Badgers are tied for the sixth-most passes intercepted in FBS, with 15. The Gophers cannot fall behind in this game, because nothing good is going to happen if they have to pass on a regular basis. It should still be a fairly close game, but the home team Badgers are favored for a reason.
One more thing to keep an eye on is the kicking game. Wisconsin has used two different kickers this season, and the Badgers are zero-of-one from beyond 40 yards. Minnesota’s Matthew Trickett has missed two of 14 attempts this year but is five-of-five from beyond 40 yards.