The Wisconsin Badgers (6-5, 4-4) host the Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-4, 4-4) to close out the regular season Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium.
Defeating Nebraska provided a huge emotional boost for the Badgers, but they’ll need concrete improvements to compete with Minnesota and finish 2022 with a winning record.
A prolific running attack has carried the Golden Gophers this year. Even though a midseason skid and last Saturday’s 13-10 loss to Iowa cost Minnesota a shot at the Big Ten West Title, they’re still a tough matchup for Wisconsin.
Minnesota offense vs. Wisconsin defense
Running back Mohamed Ibrahim has been nothing short of phenomenal in his senior season, running for 1,524 yards (5.5 per attempt) and 19 touchdowns. The nation’s second-leading rusher has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in each of his 10 games and is coming off a 39-carry, 263-yard effort versus Iowa.
Backup Treyson Potts has added 442 yards, but the running game revolves around Ibrahim — in his absence versus Purdue, the Golden Gophers managed only 44 yards on the ground and scored 10 points.
Wisconsin, having allowed 86 rushing yards per game since losing to Illinois, appears well-equipped to contain Ibrahim. While the back may reach 100 yards as a product of his massive workload, he’s unlikely to dominate like he did a week ago.
The well-timed return of defensive lineman Isaiah Mullens could be huge for Wisconsin. Mullens, an experienced gap-plugger, is off the injury report after missing six games with a right leg injury.
With his appeal having failed, linebacker Nick Herbig will miss Saturday’s first half due to his targeting penalty in Nebraska. It will likely be on Darryl Peterson and Kaden Johnson to set the edge opposite C.J. Goetz and keep Ibrahim between the tackles until Herbig returns.
Herbig claims he “did everything in [his] power” to avoid contact with Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson. Expect the junior, whose 11 sacks are tied for second in the FBS, to come out with a vengeance in the third quarter.
After four years of facing quarterback Tanner Morgan, Wisconsin will presumably see a new Minnesota quarterback this Saturday: freshman Athan Kaliakmanis is likely to start his third straight game.
The quarterback change has done little to ignite the Gopher passing game, though. In his last two games, Kaliakmanis has completed 50% of his attempts for 151 total yards, an interception and no touchdowns. Overall this season, Minnesota ranks 12th in the conference with 174 passing yards per game.
They’ve been without receiver Chris Autman-Bell, who caught 11 passes for 214 yards in the first three games before suffering a season-ending leg injury.
Wide receiver Daniel Jackson (28 catches, 398 yards) and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford (33 catches, 386 yards) have led Minnesota’s pass-catching group, but neither should concern the Badgers too much.
Wisconsin figures to stack the box as often as necessary to limit Ibrahim. If Kaliakmanis succeeds versus single coverage, so be it. On the road against a tough Badger defense, it’s more likely he makes some reckless decisions and throws an interception or two.
Wisconsin offense vs. Minnesota defense
Minnesota has allowed the fourth-fewest yards per game (275) in the Big Ten but struggled mightily versus the three best offenses it’s faced. During their three-game losing streak in October, the Gophers yielded an average of 437 total yards to Purdue, Illinois and Penn State.
Since then, an easier schedule has helped the unit post more flattering numbers — Rutgers, Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa each failed to gain 300 yards against Minnesota.
With its recent ineffectiveness, Wisconsin’s offense belongs squarely in that second group and will need to solve the Minnesota run defense. The Gophers have limited their last four opponents to 81 rushing yards per game and three yards per carry.
It’s unclear whether Braelon Allen will play as he recovers from Saturday’s ankle injury, but as the Badgers displayed in Nebraska, they now have impressive running back depth.
Chez Mellusi, who will return to the Badgers in 2023, contributed 98 yards on the ground while Isaac Guerendo added 42. Of course, Allen’s power and patience bring a unique element to the running game. That said, his absence or any limitations versus Minnesota wouldn’t be crippling to Wisconsin’s offensive gameplan.
That’s especially true if Graham Mertz builds upon his late success from a week ago. Perhaps his first fourth-quarter comeback as a college starter will serve as a much-needed confidence booster.
Assuming Minnesota stops the run more effectively than Nebraska did, 83 passing yards won’t be enough for Wisconsin to win.
Returning to Camp Randall should help Mertz, who has averaged 40 more passing yards per game at home (197) than on the road (157). Further, he’s thrown an interception every 25 attempts on the road versus every 33 attempts at home.
Ending on a high note
Disappointing as 2022 has been for the Badgers, it has the potential for a joyful conclusion. The Badgers greatly covet Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the trophy for Minnesota and Wisconsin’s annual Thanksgiving weekend matchup. In fact, with 131 games in the books, it’s the most-played rivalry in FBS history.
Last season’s loss, which killed the dream of a Big Ten West title and a trip to the championship game, was a bitter disappointment for Wisconsin. Reclaiming the Axe would merit celebration.
So too would a postgame announcement about Wisconsin’s next head coach. The university’s job posting went up last Saturday, hinting at an imminent announcement. Interim Head Coach Jim Leonhard is the clear favorite for the position, which must remain open for at least seven days before a formal decision is made.
The Daily Cardinal will be covering the Badgers and other college football news leading up to Rivalry Week, so keep an eye on our website and @cardinal_sports on Twitter.