Preview: (5) Wisconsin at Minnesota

THE BASICS

The teams: The No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers (11-0, 8-0) vs the Minnesota Gophers (5-6, 2-6)

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The time: 2:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday

The place: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.

The TV coverage: ABC with Mark Jones and Rod Gilmore in the booth, and Quint Kessenich on the sideline.

The last time: Wisconsin scored 24 straight points in the second half to overcome a 10-point deficit and win 31-17 last November at Camp Randall Stadium.

The series: 59-59-8

The line: Wisconsin -17

The Badgers injury report:

QUESTIONABLE

S D’Cota Dixon (leg)
LB Chris Orr (leg)

OUT

Game:

TE Luke Benzschawel (leg)

Season:

WR Quintez Cephus (leg)
S Patrick Johnson (arm)
RB Taiwan Deal (leg)
LB Jack Cichy (knee)
LB Zack Baun (foot)
RB Sam Brodner (knee)
LB Mason Stokke (leg)

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1) Looking for perfection

Wisconsin is off to the best start in school history and with a win can have its first unbeaten conference season since 1912. Now sitting at No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the victory would also keep the Badgers in the race for one of four spots as they head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game against Ohio State next weekend. All of this coming knowing that a loss would make Minnesota’s season. No pressure.

2) For the ‘Axe’

Thirteen years. That’s how long it’s been since Minnesota players have touched Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the trophy that goes to the winning team in the oldest rivalry in college football. And Wisconsin has no intention of the streak — the longest for either team in the series — coming to an end on Saturday. They know what’s at stake for their season but also in the rivalry itself, as a win would give the Badgers the series lead for the first time ever.

3) Need a clean game

The only way Minnesota has a chance to beat Wisconsin is if the Badgers beat themselves with penalties and turnovers. The latter begins and ends with quarterback Alex Hornibrook. He’s thrown at least one interception in every conference game this year, including three against Iowa — the last trophy game Wisconsin played. Can the Badgers win even if he does turn it over? Sure. But they can be scary good when he’s on the mark and not forcing the issue.

4) The curious case of Demry Croft

Minnesota’s quarterback hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in more than a month, and the Gophers are just 1-3 with him as their starter during that period. But in the one game they did win — a 54-21 whipping of Nebraska — the sophomore put on a show. He threw for 105 yards and ran for another 183 yards and three touchdowns. It’s an outlier in an otherwise rough season, but Wisconsin can’t allow Croft to get loose. They need to force him to beat them from the pocket, something he has largely proven he can’t do.

5) P.J. Fleck vs Paul Chryst

The men that lead these two programs could not be more different. Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck is a never ending string of words and actions designed to get your attention and keep it. He’s a cliche machine with his “Row the Boat” mantra and a ball of energy that is constantly rolling. On the other sideline is Paul Chryst — almost the exact opposite. Both have been successful in their careers, though everyone is waiting to see if Fleck’s success at Western Michigan can be duplicated in Minnesota. Neither way is the right way, but it’s impossible to not notice the difference.

NUMBERS TO CONSIDER

Wisconsin is 16-1 in its last 17 trophy games (Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska).

Running back Jonathan Taylor needs 269 yards to break the single-season FBS rushing record for a freshman, which is currently held by Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson. He ran for 1,925 yards in 2004.

The Badgers are allowing just 246.4 yards per game, the No. 2 mark in the nation behind Alabama. While noting they still have at least three games to play, that total would be the fewest by a Wisconsin defense since 1958 (244.1).

PREDICTIONS

Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17 (11-0 on the season, 7-4 against the spread)
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 34 , Minnesota 14 (11-0 on the season, 7-4 against the spread)
Joe Miller’s prediction: Wisconsin 41, Minnesota 10 (11-0 on the season, 7-4 against the spread)

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