Five things to watch: Minnesota
MADISON — It’s Axe week. With the way the Badgers played in East Lansing, the rivalry game against Minnesota could not have come at a better time for UW. After suffering their first loss to Michigan State last week, Wisconsin’s focus is on keeping the Axe.
Before things kick off at Camp Randall today, BadgerBlitz.com offers a number of things to watch during today’s game, as well as a prediction.
1.) Can they get off the field?
When the Spartans needed a big play in the Big Ten opener, more often than not the Badgers were not able to stop them from getting it. Out of 18 third down conversion attempts, Michigan State was successful nine times.
More importantly, despite creating three turnovers, the Wisconsin defense forced MSU to punt just once the entire game. While the Gophers are not on the same level as the Spartans, a similar output by the defense would not bode well for UW.
To beat Adam Weber and Minnesota, the Wisconsin defense led by J.J. Watt will need to do a far better job of imposing its will, controlling the game and setting up the offense with opportunities to score.
2.) Under pressure
Everyone focused on third downs last week, but the real issue was a lack of success stopping Michigan State on first and second down. A lot of that had to do with an inability to pressure Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins.
More often than not, Cousins threw the ball when he wanted to or was ready to, rather than when the UW defense forced him to do so. With another of the Big Ten’s top signal callers in Weber coming to town Saturday, pressure will be important against Minnesota.
The Gophers, along with the Badgers, are tied fourth in the Big Ten with just five sacks allowed this season. The Spartans, on the other hand, have allowed more sacks (11) than every team in the conference other than Northwestern.
It certainly won’t be easy, but the Badgers need to make Weber feel uncomfortable every time he drops back to pass.
3.) What happened to the passing game?
Wisconsin three non-running back stars on offense — Scott Tolzien, Nick Toon, and Lance Kendricks — were disappointing in the Big Ten opener, to put it lightly. In such a big game, those three should be expected to step up, not put up their worst performances of the season.
Minnesota’s defense has struggled to stop both the run and pass this season, but you can be sure they’ll focus more on the former this week. To open things up for John Clay and James White, Tolzien will need to be better than 11-for-25 for 127 yards.
4.) Not So Special Teams
For the second time this season, breakdowns on kick and punt coverage against MSU proved crucial. Against a team like Minnesota, the last thing Wisconsin needs is to let the Gophers keep things close with a special teams touchdown.
There’s little question that Wisconsin should easily retain the Axe for a seventh straight year. But even a team like Minnesota could make things interesting if the Badgers’ coverage units continue to struggle.
5.) Resurgence of Clay
Over the last two weeks, White has been far and away the better of the two Wisconsin running backs. His speed and quickness make him exactly the kind of dynamic runner the Badgers need to complement Clay.
Unfortunately for all involved, Clay has struggled to hold up his end of the bargain. Aside from a handful of impressive runs of more than 10 yards, Clay has looked slow, hesitant, and simply ineffective.
Perhaps no one in cardinal and white is looking forward to facing the Gophers than Clay. With their rush defense ranking 10th in the conference, Clay should have the perfect opportunity to show he’s still among the best offensive players in the conference.
On paper, this matchup looks like a 20-point blowout in the Badgers’ favor ready to happen. Minnesota is near the bottom of the conference in points scored and allowed. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is near the top in both.
With the motivation of a disappointing loss a week ago combined with their desire to retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the Badgers should have no trouble handling the Gophers. Still, a 22-point spread seems like a bit much. The only time UW has covered the spread this season was their 70-3 blowout of Austin Peay.
Keeping that in mind, I like Wisconsin over Minnesota, 38-20.