As unlikely as it seemed one month into the season, Wisconsin can clinch a berth in the Big Ten title game when the Badgers travel to face archrival Minnesota on Saturday in Minneapolis in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Wisconsin (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten), ranked No. 14 in the College Football Playoff poll, would win the Big Ten West with a victory over the Gophers (7-4, 5-3). The Badgers have won seven straight since opening the season 1-3, including two conference losses, with each defeat to a ranked team.
Wisconsin enters tied with Iowa atop the West, but holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its 27-7 victory over the Hawkeyes. Minnesota could still win the division with a win over Wisconsin, but also would need Nebraska to beat Iowa and Purdue to defeat Indiana.
The bordering state rivals have met 130 times. The Badgers have won the last two meetings, including 20-17 in overtime last season, and 16 of the last 17. The Gophers’ only win in that span was 37-15 at Madison in 2018.
“The game has always meant a lot,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “I know the times I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of it, and I know every one of our guys, you get a chance to play in this game, it’s the longest rivalry in college football and to be a part of that is special. And certainly, we know it’s against a very good football team.”
Wisconsin is coming off a 35-28 home victory over Nebraska in which the Cornhuskers shredded the nation’s top-ranked defense for 452 total yards, including 351 through the air. Nebraska drove to Wisconsin’s 11-yard line in the final minute before being stopped on fourth down.
Freshman Braelon Allen continues to power the resurgent Wisconsin ground game, especially with the loss of then-leading rusher Chez Mellusi to a season-ending leg injury three weeks ago. After just 12 carries through the first four games, the 238-pound Allen has topped 100 yards seven consecutive games, including a season-high 228 yards with three touchdowns against Nebraska.
Wisconsin leads the nation in rushing defense (64.3 yards per game), is second in total defense (237.7 ypg) and fifth in scoring defense (15.8 ppg). The Badgers have 19 takeaways during their seven-game win streak.
When asked what jumps out at him about the Badgers defense under coordinator Jim Leonhard, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said, “Everything. All of it.”
“They are maybe one of the best defenses we played against in our time here of any opponent,” Fleck said.
After consecutive losses to Illinois and Iowa, Minnesota bounced back last week with a 35-14 win at Indiana.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan completed 14 of 20 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns, including 5-for-5 on third down with for four first downs and a touchdown. Morgan has completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,736 yards and nine touchdowns, with seven interceptions.
“They’ve got an identity and they’re good at what they do,” Chryst said. “We’ve played against their quarterback a number of times and he’s a really good football player. … They’re physical, they play hard, they’ve got guys than can make plays, skill players that can make plays.”
After injuries to preseason All-American Mohamed Ibrahim in the opener, and then Trey Potts midway into the season, redshirt freshman Ky Thomas has become the top ball carrier with 625 yards, topping 100 yards in four of the last five games. Freshman Mar’Keise Irving has rushed for 531 yards.
–Field Level Media