Wisconsin and Minnesota will take the field Saturday afternoon with a lot on the line.
They’ll battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe and a shot at a Big Ten West title. For two teams that were looking up at Iowa for much of September and October, it’s mildly surprising we’re seeing a situation where Wisconsin can capture the division with a win on Saturday.
The game will not be an extremely easy one for the Badgers. This will be one of Graham Mertz’s first experiences playing a big-time road game (Purdue this year was his first), Braelon Allen will need to continue dominating opponents and the defense needs a bounce-back contest after giving up 28 points to Nebraska last weekend.
For thoughts on those areas and more, here are six stats that will decide Saturday’s game:
100+ rushing yards for Braelon Allen?
Nov 20, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) rushes for a touchdown as Nebraska Cornhuskers safety Myles Farmer (4) reaches for behind during the fourth quarter against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Not much explanation needed here.
Braelon Allen has topped 100 yards in seven straight contests. Wisconsin has won each of those games.
If Allen is able to continue his dominance and run over Minnesota, Wisconsin shouldn’t have much trouble winning the game.
4.78 vs. 3.96
Nov 13, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) throws a pass under pressure from Northwestern Wildcats defensive lineman Sean McLaughlin (97) during the second quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
4.78: The average number of points Minnesota allows per quality drive (No. 102 in the nation).
3.96: The average number of points Wisconsin scores per quality drive (No. 78).
From my five keys to victory:
This key isn’t about where Wisconsin is lacking necessarily, as the team now ranks No. 14 nationally in quality drive percentage on offense (first down past the 40 yard line or a big-play touchdown) and has risen up to No. 78 in points-per-quality possession. I can assure you the second number was a lot lower just a few weeks ago.
This key is more on the Minnesota side of things. The Golden Gopher defense ranks No. 10 nationally in allowing quality drives (only 39%), yet ranks No. 102 in points-per-quality drive.
What does that all mean? Minnesota is great at getting off the field early in drives and keeping opponents away from its side of the field. However, when teams do cross the 40 and threaten the Gophers red zone, those drives often result in touchdowns.
Put in simple terms: Minnesota’s defense is good at preventing sustained drives, though is not good at keeping quality drives out of the end zone. Wisconsin’s offense is quite good at orchestrating sustained drives, though still has room for improvement in scoring points in those opportunities.
4.75 vs. 3.68
Nov 20, 2021; Bloomington, Indiana, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Mar’Keise Irving (4) finds a hole in the Indiana Hoosiers and runs into the end zone for a touchdown during the second half at Memorial Stadium. Gophers won 35-14. Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
That first number? Minnesota’s yards per carry in wins.
The second? Minnesota’s yards per carry in losses.
It’s been night and day for the Golden Gophers. When the team runs the ball well, it often comes away with a victory. When it doesn’t, it can get ugly at times (see: loss to Illinois).
To simplify the complex: Minnesota's rushing production this season…
In wins: 334car, 1588yds, 19td, 4.75 ypc
In losses: 180car, 663yds, 5td, 3.68ypc#Badgers
— Ben Kenney (@benzkenney) November 24, 2021
.36 vs. .00
Nov 6, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) drops back to pass as Rutgers Scarlet Knights defensive lineman Julius Turner (50) defends during the first half at SHI Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota enters Saturday with a positive turnover margin, averaging +.36 turnovers per contest (+4 total, ranked No. 38 in nation).
Wisconsin, somehow, is back to a net total of +0 in the turnover department. That number is remarkable given how often the team turned the ball over early in the season and how it was unable to turn opponents over during that time.
Wisconsin definitely has the momentum here. It’ll be a stat that may be the biggest deciding factor in the game.
Early down EPA
Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen (0) punches into the end zone to score a touchdown during the second quarter of their game against Northwestern Saturday, November 13, 2021 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
Minnesota enters Saturday converting 44.52% of its third downs, while Wisconsin still sits down at 33.33%.
Again, that is an area that is trending in the right direction for the Badgers after a tough start to the season.
Where will this area be helped the most? Success on early downs.
Minnesota’s offense ranks No. 57 nationally in early down expected points added, while Wisconsin defense ranks No. 4 in that department.
Minnesota’s defense ranks No. 68, while Wisconsin’s offense ranks No. 32.
The Badgers have a clear advantage here on both sides of the ball, so expect some shorter third downs when Wisconsin has the football and longer ones when Minnesota has possession.
Receiving yards by the tight end
Nov 20, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson (84) rushes with the football after catching a pass during the third quarter against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
If there’s one thing that’s beaten Wisconsin during its seven-game win streak it’s been opposing tight ends.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost: "I think the way (Wisconsin) plays, it gives you some opportunities to get it to the tight end."#Badgers have been burned by a few TEs:
Michael Mayer 7-61
Payne Durham 9-112-1
Austin Allen 7-143
— Dave Heller (@dave_heller) November 21, 2021
Luckily for the Badgers, Minnesota tight end Ko Kieft has only 7 catches, 101 yards and 1 touchdown on the season.
Turn to the other side of the ball, Jake Ferguson had a solid day against Nebraska–8 catches, 92 yards.
His presence in the pass game has been massive for the team, especially when the team is completing passes to all areas of the field and he’s able to find open space.