The Wisconsin Badgers (6-5) will look to close out the regular season with two straight victories Saturday when they play the Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-6) in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Minneapolis.
Wisconsin was able to lift a gigantic weight off their shoulders last week after defeating the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a win that finally put the Badgers =back on the right track following a horrid three game losing streak to Ohio State, Indiana and Northwestern..
In the midst of those losses, serious questions regarding the program’s strength began to emerge. Some lost faith in head coach Luke Fickell.
But with a gritty overtime victory over Nebraska, Wisconsin is now able to shift their focus away from negativity surrounding the program and instead toward finishing their difficult regular season with two straight victories.
The scars of this season will remain, but a positive ending would go a long way in the program’s development.
Minnesota, also in the midst of a frustrating season, is coming off three straight losses. Sitting at sixth in the lowly Big Ten West, Minnesota endured their share of struggles this season and is certainly a beatable team for the Badgers. However, the Gophers have won the last two Axe Game matchups, so a victory will not come easy for Wisconsin.
With 132 meetings between Wisconsin and Minnesota, it is the most-played Power Five rivalry in college football history. With the added implications of Paul Bunyan’s Axe and a bowl game on the line for Minnesota, Saturday’s game will spark a certain intensity, even if the stakes aren’t as high as past seasons.
To win, Wisconsin will need their defense to start strong. Wisconsin’s defense quickly allowed two first-quarter touchdowns to Nebraska last week, but they limited the Cornhuskers to only three more points the rest of the game. A similar story occurred two weeks ago against Northwestern, when the Badgers ceded 24 first-half points but held the Wildcats scoreless in the second half.
Against Minnesota, Wisconsin’s defense needs to start fast and play a complete game. Minnesota’s offense hasn’t been encouraging this season and ranks 11th overall in the Big Ten. However, Wisconsin’s defense has been susceptible to underwhelming offenses at times this season.
Offensively, Wisconsin rode star running back Braelon Allen a week ago, and they would undoubtedly look to do so again this week if it weren’t for his uncertain status. Nagged by injuries for the past month, Allen braved a lower left leg injury and carried the ball 22 times against Nebraska. While Wisconsin would surely hope to replicate this recipe for success, Allen may not be able to repeat the workload he endured last week.
Allen plans to suit up against the Gophers, but Wisconsin will need to look elsewhere for offensive success. That may come in the form of backup running backs Jackson Acker and Cade Yacamelli, who have had mixed success as Wisconsin’s fill-ins for Allen.
Or, the Badgers could try to air it out with quarterback Tanner Mordecai, although the passing game has been enormously inconsistent. Mordecai was expected to lead an air attack coming into the season, but he has only thrown four touchdown passes with the Badgers.
Wisconsin’s offense has been mostly stagnant for the better part of the past month, but if the Badgers generate enough offensive momentum, they should be able to rely on their defense to secure Paul Bunyan’s Axe.