Preview: Minnesota at No. 6 Wisconsin

THE BASICS

The teams: The Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-3, 5-3) vs the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers (9-2, 6-2)

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

The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.

The TV coverage: Big Ten Network with Kevin Kugler and Matt Millen in the booth, and Lisa Byington on the sideline.

The last time: Running back Dare Ogunbowale ran for a career-high 155 yards as Wisconsin beat Minnesota 31-21 last November.

The series: Minnesota 59-58-8

The line: Wisconsin -14

The Badgers injury report:

QUESTIONABLE

OLB Zack Baun (leg)

FB Austin Ramesh (shoulder)

NT Olive Sagapolu (hand)

OUT

OL Jacob Maxwell (shoulder)

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1) More than the ‘Axe’

Wisconsin and Minnesota play for one of the best trophies in all of college football — Paul Bunyan’s Axe. And while it’s paramount for the Badgers to hold onto it, the reward for it remaining in their hands is bigger than in most years. A win would give Wisconsin the Big Ten West for a second time in three years, and put them into the conference title game for a fourth time in six years. Win that, and the college football playoff remains a possibility.

2) Slow Rodney Smith, slow Minnesota?

The Badgers biggest focus on defense will be to slow running back Rodney Smith. The sophomore went over the 1,000-yard mark last week against Northwestern, and leads the Gophers with 15 touchdowns. Paired with Shannon Brooks, the Gophers duo gives Minnesota the fifth-best rushing attack in the Big Ten at 191 yards per game.

And the run game has been a key to their success this season. Outside of the Penn State loss where they ran for 228 yards, the Gophers two worst outings came in their other losses, managing just 102 yards against Iowa and 85 against Nebraska. That’s not good news against a Wisconsin defense that is allowing just 98 yards per game — tops in the Big Ten.

If the Gophers have any shot of pulling the upset, they must be able to run the ball and try to match the Badgers in time of possession.

3) First-round pick?

Prior to the season, ESPN’s draft expert Todd McShay said he thought Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner had a chance to be a first-round draft pick next April. The thought was widely criticized, and Leidner has done nothing to shut people up this year.  The senior is completing just 58.6 percent of his passes and has thrown more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (6). In fact, he’s thrown just one touchdown in the last six games.

Now he faces a Wisconsin defense that has owned him the last two years. Leidner threw three interceptions a year ago in a 31-21 loss, while in 2014 he managed to hit on just 5 of 18 passes in a 34-24 defeat.

A repeat performance from Leidner is not something the Gophers can afford.

4) Dave Aranda’s impact

Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda won’t be in Madison on Saturday, but his impact will be felt on both sidelines.

Aranda spent three years turning the Badgers defense into one of the better units in the country, before leaving in January for the same job at LSU.

Meanwhile, as he’s known to do, Aranda spent time with other coaching staffs in the offseason, but his first stop — Minnesota — raised some eyebrows. Aranda spent two days in the Twin Cities in February, and it appears to have paid off as the Gophers have used more 3-4 looks and boast one of the better pass rushes in the country, while also being stout against the run, giving up just 116 yards per game.

Wisconsin running game has experienced a resurgence in recent weeks, but Minnesota could be the best front seven they’ve faced since Ohio State more than a month ago.

5) Senior Day

13 seniors will play their final game at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday. That group includes a three-year starter at outside linebacker in Vince Biegel, a four-year starter at cornerback in Sojourn Shelton and a number of other guys, like safety Leo Musso, that have been forced to wait until later in their career to make an impact on a play-to-play basis.

Not everyone has stayed. There have been career-ending injuries, guys transferring and others that simply couldn’t make it. The ones that have stayed around, though, boast a 39-12 record and have the opportunity to put an exclamation point on a remarkable regular season with a win over the Gophers.

NUMBERS TO CONSIDER

  • For the first time in 110 years, Wisconsin can even the all-time series with a win over Minnesota. It currently stands at 58-59-8. The Badgers have never led in the series.
  • Wisconsin is No. 5 in the AP Top 25 this week, the ninth week this year where its been in the top 10 — the second-most weeks in a single season in school history.
  • The senior class is 9-1 in trophy games, including 3-0 against Minnesota. Their lone loss came against Iowa to open the Big Ten season in 2015.
  • Corey Clement went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season against Purdue, becoming the 17th Wisconsin running back to top that mark. As it stands, the senior’s 4.2 yards per carry is the lowest by any of the previous 16 runners to get to 1,000 yards.

PREDICTIONS

Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 13 (7-4 on the season)
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 33, Minnesota 17 (8-3 on the season)
Jake Zimmermann’s prediction: Wisconsin 28, Minnesota  13 (9-2 on the season)
Joe Miller’s prediction: Wisconsin 35 , Minnesota 14 (8-3 on the season)
Eric Rogers’ prediction: Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 10 (9-2 on the season)