As part of Gameday VII, The Daily Cardinal's Justin Alpert lays out the three keys to a Wisconsin victory against Minnesota this Saturday afternoon.
- Contain Ibrahim and the Minnesota running attack
Averaging just over 29 carries and 154 yards-per-game, junior tailback Mohamed Ibrahim has done the heavy lifting for Minnesota’s offense in 2020. As a team, the Golden Gophers are third in the Big Ten with 199.5 rushing yards-per-game. Further, their 18 rushing touchdowns lead the conference. Backup running backs Cam Wiley and Treyson Potts both boast explosive potential, averaging 6.7 and 7.1 yards-per-attempt, respectively.
Minnesota will likely continue this Ibrahim-led, run-heavy approach despite Wisconsin’s Big Ten-best run defense, which has yielded 3.2-yards-per-carry and 83.2yardspergame on the ground this year. The Gophers’ standout receiver Rashod Bateman opted out of the remainder of the season to prepare for the NFL Draft, which should make life easier for the Wisconsin secondary. However, if the Badgers fail to stifle Ibrahim, Wiley and Potts, Minnesota will have neither incentive nor need to pass the ball too often.
2. Focus pass coverage on Autman-Bell
Last Saturday, Iowa wideout Ihmir Smith-Marsette dominated with seven catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns –– the second of which put the game out of reach for Wisconsin shortly after they had narrowed the deficit to seven points. It’s no mystery that Smith-Marsette is Iowa’s best receiver, yet Wisconsin clearly didn’t cover him appropriately. On both touchdowns, the senior receiver simply outran the cornerback covering him and the deep safety.
Wisconsin appears to face a similar challenge this Saturday in Chris Autman-Bell, Minnesota’s indisputable No. 1 receiver in Bateman’s absence. Autman-Bell has tallied five catches in both of his two most recent games, with 82 yards against Nebraska and 129 yards against Purdue.
Man coverage failures were responsible for multiple big plays by Smith-Marsette. If Autman-Bell thrives early on against a similar scheme, it’ll be up to defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to adjust the game plan, perhaps with a deep zone coverage. Wisconsin must contain Minnesota’s top big-play threat to keep the game within reach for Graham Mertz and the offense.
3. Get the passing game going early
This may seem obvious considering quarterback Graham Mertz’s well-documented struggles of late, but the need for a first half spark in the passing offense is elevated due to Wisconsin’s recent difficulty running the ball. The Badgers’ 140 yards on 35 carries against Indiana, although respectable, was unusually low for Wisconsin football. Saturday against Iowa, on the other hand, Wisconsin totaled a dismal 56 yards on 33 attempts. Yes, tailback Jalen Berger was inactive, although the Badgers’ backfield committee is capable of better even without one of its members.
Mertz threw for only 31 yards in the first half at Iowa and 70 in the first half against Indiana. Concerns about turnovers by the young quarterback are legitimate, but Wisconsin would be wise to implement a more aggressive offensive attack early on. If by some chance Mertz catches fire in the first half and gives Wisconsin its first lead since the Michigan game, the Badgers’ offense will enjoy more open running lanes and the defense will have slightly more room for error.