Tracy Claeys sees a way the Gophers can upset No. 5 Wisconsin on Saturday and reclaim Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003. But it involves a Bunyanesque task for Minnesota’s defense.
“My first impression is, yeah, you’re going to have to keep it around 14 points in order to have an opportunity to win,” Claeys said.
With one of the nation’s most stifling defenses, the Badgers have played a handful of low-scoring games. They defeated LSU (16-14), Iowa (17-9), Nebraska (23-17 in overtime) and Northwestern (21-7), and lost to Michigan (14-7). Their other loss was a 30-23, overtime slugfest at Ohio State.
The Gophers are two-touchdown underdogs heading to Madison, a place where they haven’t won since 1994. Crazy as it sounds, Minnesota might be better positioned to win than last year, when the Badgers were just 2½-point favorites but still prevailed 31-21 at TCF Bank Stadium.
The difference for the Gophers is run defense. They rank third in the Big Ten, allowing 116.3 yards per game, which gives them hope of at least slowing a Badgers squad that has been running at will.
With Corey Clement healthy, Wisconsin has averaged 233.3 rushing yards over the past six games.
“They’ve been able to find ways to move the ball against everybody they played, and they’ve played some awfully good football teams,” Claeys said.
But with Wisconsin sitting at No. 6 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, it’s fair to wonder if the Badgers passing game is good enough to hang with No. 1 Alabama and the nation’s elite.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst has been starting redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook and spelling him with senior Bart Houston. Hornibrook is a lefty; Houston is a righty. But when asked about preparing for two different quarterbacks, Claeys and senior linebacker Nick Rallis both gave similar answers.
“I’m focused on stopping the run, quite honestly,” Rallis said.
“Obviously,” Claeys added, “any time there’s two [quarterbacks], you are aware who’s in the game. But the challenge to them is being able to stop the running game.”
When the Badgers came to Minnesota last year, they were missing Clement, and injuries forced them to start four redshirt freshmen along the offensive line.
But the oddsmakers may have underestimated the holes that had formed in the middle of Minnesota’s defense. The Gophers’ starting defensive tackles — Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe — were both out. So was key reserve Robert Ndondo Lay. The Gophers had to rely on previously untested walk-on Justin Carr for big snaps, and moved defensive end Gaelin Elmore over to tackle, where he was way undersized at 270 pounds.
The Badgers wound up rushing for 257 yards — 147 above their season average — led by Dare Ogunbowale (155 yards) and Taiwan Deal (90).
“When you get to No. 5 and 6 [on the defensive tackle depth chart], nobody’s really good,” Claeys said. “But those kids played hard, and that’s the biggest difference in the game this year for us, we’re as healthy as you’re going to be.
“But you’re still going to have to play good. A year ago, Wisconsin was awfully young up front. Those guys have all developed, and they’re playing awfully well.”
Besides having Richardson and Ekpe healthy, the Gophers have reinforcements to keep them fresh, in Andrew Stelter, Merrick Jackson and Yoshoub Timms.
Rallis, who made nine tackles against Wisconsin last year, has taken over at middle linebacker with Cody Poock out (shoulder). Fellow starting linebackers Jack Lynn and Jonathan Celestin are also built to stop the run.
“We’ve all just improved as players,” Rallis said. “Our D-line is playing great. I mean, if you watched that last game [vs. Northwestern, the defensive linemen] made it easy for the linebackers. If they can keep playing like that, I think we definitely will be better than we were last year.”
Minnesota’s victory formula depends on it.