Randy Johnson’s Gophers-Badgers prediction: Who wins the Axe and why?

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

Gophers at Wisconsin, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Camp Randall Stadium, ESPN, 100.3-FM

The chance at a Big Ten West Division title disappeared for both the Gophers (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) and Badgers (6-5, 4-4) last weekend, so they'll settle for playing a rivalry game. This marks the 132nd meeting overall between the teams and the 75th time with Paul Bunyan's Axe at stake.

Three big story lines

1. Will the Gophers retain the Axe?

Minnesota beat Wisconsin 23-13 last year in Minneapolis, and fans stormed the field and jumped around with players. It marked the Gophers' second victory over the Badgers in four years after Wisconsin had won it from 2004-17. Coach P.J. Fleck will try to even his Gophers record against Wisconsin to 3-3 in a rivalry that's become more competitive.

2. Will Mohamed Ibrahim break more school records?

With his 263-yard performance against Iowa, Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim closed in on two of the program's most prominent rushing records. He has 1,524 rushing yards this season and needs 103 more to break David Cobb's single-season record of 1,626. Ibrahim has 4,527 career yards and needs 128 to break Darrell Thompson's program record of 4,654.

3. How often will the Gophers pass the ball?

With Ibrahim running so well in the second half against Iowa, the Gophers went away from the passing game, as redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis completed only one of his eight second-half passes after going 6-for-7 in the first half. They'll likely need more balance to beat Wisconsin.

Two key matchups

Chez Mellusi, Braelon Allen vs. Gophers linebackers

Mellusi returned against Nebraska after missing the previous five weeks and rushed for 98 yards, while Allen had 92 while battling injuries. Mariano Sori-Marin and Cody Lindenberg will be key for the Gophers defense in limiting Wisconsin's ground game, which isn't up to past standards but still is dangerous.

Graham Mertz vs. Gophers secondary

After throwing one interception in a four-game span, Mertz, the Badgers QB, has thrown three picks over the past two games. Gophers safeties Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden, presumably playing their last regular-season games, are waiting for some errant passes to swing momentum in Minnesota's favor.

One stat that matters

1993-94 The last time the Gophers won Paul Bunyan's Axe in back-to-back seasons. They're going for their third Axe win in five seasons.

The Gophers will win if … the coaching staff loosens the reins a bit on Kaliakmanis, and the quarterback responds with better accuracy; Ibrahim and the offensive line approach the dominant performance they had against Iowa; and the team's psyche isn't too badly battered from the emotional loss to the Hawkeyes.

The Badgers will win if … they force a turnover or two from the Gophers; their running game gets going, keeping Ibrahim on the sideline; Mertz throws the ball consistently to his teammates rather than the opposition; and their defense gets enough three-and-outs to keep Minnesota uncomfortable.

Prediction

Both of these teams like to run the ball to impose their will on opponents, and both have defenses that rank in the top 12 nationally. The Badgers have the home-field advantage, though the Gophers have shown that they can play well at Camp Randall Stadium, winning there in 2018 and dropping a 20-17 overtime decision in 2020.

The difference in this game will be Ibrahim. The sixth-year senior has averaged nearly 36 carries and 182 yards over the past four games, and he and his offensive line have been dominant against strong defenses. Ibrahim's streak of 100-yard rushing games will reach 20, and the Gophers retain the Axe.

My expectation: The Gophers withstand an early Badgers push, get just enough from the pass game and ride Ibrahim to victory. Gophers 24, Wisconsin 14.