What happens when a stoppable force meets a moveable object?
The answer is Saturday at Camp Randall, as an anemic Wisconsin (2-3) offense looks to generate some kind of momentum against a porous Minnesota (3-3) secondary in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Both of these programs entered the season with such high hopes, only to see them dashed by complete failure on one side of the ball.
After a promising offense campaign in 2019, the Wisconsin offense has completely fallen apart in 2020. With Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus in the NFL and Jack Coan still nursing a preseason foot injury, the Badgers are without their leading passer, rusher and receiver from last year’s division winning campaign, and it shows on the field.
Highly-touted freshman quarterback Graham Mertz impressed in opening clashes against Illinois and Michigan, but has struggled mightily since then. Part of that has undeniably been the lack of help he’s had at the receiver position, but even Mertz’s staunchest defenders must admit that the QB has left big plays on the board these past couple weeks –– most notably misses to Mason Stokke and Jack Dunn that would have resulted in touchdowns in last week’s game against then No. 16 Iowa.
Mertz has looked indecisive and is too often forcing the ball to his first read, which usually has been tight end Jake Ferguson. While his arm talent is undeniable, Mertz has struggled with accuracy and decision making in the intermediate passing game, which has resulted in a 1 touchdown, 5 interception stretch over the past three games.
Not that Mertz is solely to blame for the abysmal performance of the Badger offense over the past several weeks. The team’s best receiver, Danny Davis, has missed the past three games after suffering a concussion against Michigan. Kendric Pryor, the other starter in two receiver sets, missed all of the Northwestern and Iowa games and most of the Indiana game.
Their replacements have yet to prove capable. Freshman Chimere Dike is having a solid freshman year, but too much is being asked of him in the absence of Davis and Pryor. Since they first suffered their injuries against Michigan, Dike has just 7 catches for 116 yards.
Walk-on Jack Dunn, who measures in at just five-foot-seven, has stepped in as the team’s second receiver, and while his effort has been admirable, he is clearly not a Big Ten caliber receiver. Neither is Adam Krumholz, who has also received a significant number of snaps at wide-out.
That Dunn and Krumholz are even playing represents a significant recruiting failure on the part of Paul Chryst and his staff. Receivers Taj Mustapha and A.J. Abbott were supposedly big wins on the recruiting trail in 2018 and were expected to contribute this season. Of the two, Abbott is the only one who has played, and he looks overmatched at this level, recording just two catches for 12 yards this season.
One of the team’s only offensive bright spots was the performance of freshman running back
Jalen Berger, who impressed even as the passing offense floundered against Northwestern and Indiana. Berger, however, will miss Saturday’s game against Minnesota as a result of a positive COVID-19 test. He was also unavailable against Iowa, and his absence was felt dearly in the running game.
Wisconsin carried the ball 33 times for 56 yards against the Hawkeyes, a laughably-bad 1.7 yards-per-carry. Nakia Watson, whose only other scholarship offers came from Bowling Green, Nevada, North Texas, and Ohio, led the team with 13 carries for 29 yards. Perhaps Watson’s lack of top-end speed or lateral quickness deterred the rest of the power five from offering, and their evaluation appears to have been spot on. Watson is averaging just 3.6 yards a carry on 53 attempts this season, and is clearly incapable of being a feature back at the Big Ten level.
That Wisconsin –– which has mustered just 20 points in the last three games combined –– is still a 12.5-point favorite against Minnesota is a testament to how poorly the Gophers defense has played this season.
After an 11-2 campaign last season, Gophers fans expected the team to compete for the Big Ten West crown even after the team lost seven defensive starters to graduation or the NFL from last year’s team. Those seven included NFL Draft picks Antoine Winfield Jr., Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin and Chris Williamson.
Any hopes for a division title for Minnesota disappeared after the defense surrendered 49 points and 45 points in the team’s opening two games against Michigan and Maryland, respectively, both losses. The Gophers have surrendered over 30 points in four of six games this season and have forced just six turnovers on the season. The team is giving up 7.87 yards per play, including 6.6 yards per attempt on the ground.
Recent trends are promising for the Gophers defense, however. Despite being short handed against Nebraska last week, Minnesota held Cornhuskers QB Adrian Martinez to just 111 yards passing, although the Gophers continued to struggle defending the run, allowing Martinez, Dedrick Mills, and Wan’Dale Robinson to run for over 200 yards combined.
The Gophers were without 33 players due to positive COVID-19 tests and contract tracing against Nebraska last week, making their 24-17 victory that much more impressive. Among those 33 were several starters on the offensive and defensive lines, and their status is unknown for Saturday’s clash.
This game was initially scheduled for Nov. 28, but COVID-19 complications within the Minnesota program forced the two teams to cancel the game. Wisconsin and Minnesota have played every season since 1916, and the Big Ten rescheduled the game for this “Champions week” to ensure the rivalry would be played.
Wisconsin won the Axe back from Minnesota in a de facto Big Ten West title game last year. The game was the site of College Gameday, and Wisconsin overcame a slow start in a 38-17 victory. While this year’s game has neither the title implications nor the national fanfare of last year’s clash, it presents a golden opportunity for both teams to salvage something from this bizarre season and generate some momentum going into 2021.
Bragging rights are on the line, and although Wisconsin has won the Axe 15 of the last 16 seasons, Minnesota can still tie the rivalry’s all time record, which currently stands at 61-60-8 in favor of Wisconsin, with a win on Saturday. Preventing that from happening will surely be of utmost importance to this Badger senior class, who can go out on a high note with a victory on Saturday.