MADISON – The Wisconsin players did not have to watch the highlights of their meeting with rival Minnesota in 2021.
They know why they were beaten by their rivals and thus denied a berth in the Big Ten title game.
“Minnesota was just more physical than us,” senior outside linebacker CJ Goetz said. “They really beat us with our own ball. They beat us playing our style. That’s the biggest thing that hurts when I look back on it.
“Watching the game after and having to live with it for a whole year…”
UW (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) and Minnesota (7-4, 4-4) will meet in the regular season finale at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
The West Division title is not on the line for UW this season. Only Paul Bunyan’s ax and the ability to erase last season’s embarrassment.
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That’s why interim head coach Jim Leonhard reminded the team early in the week that Minnesota was the aggressor, the team with more tenacity, more stamina last season in Minneapolis.
Do you want to motivate a locker room full of football players? Challenge their masculinity.
“We already talked about it this morning,” Leonhard said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “They’re ready. We had a lead going into the break and they finished it off. They made plays in the second half to swing the game and create momentum and keep us on our heels. And we could do it not overcome.
“We need to dominate the line of scrimmage. It’s going to be a good fight. You have to make plays… in the run game, in the pass game.
You don’t need the highest level of security clearance to know that UW believes in punishing its enemies with a physical ground game.
The Gophers controlled the line of scrimmage last season. They limited Braelon Allen, who was struggling with a knee injury, to 47 yards on 17 carries. He gained 14 yards on one run and was limited to 33 yards on 16 other runs.
UW finished with just 62 yards on 22 attempts, an average of 2.8 yards per carry.
“Just a fast, physical team,” said Allen when asked to describe how difficult it was to find running space that day. “Eleven guys on the ball in every game. I felt like I wasn’t tackled by less than three guys on every game. I have to prepare for that. It will be a tough battle.”
If one game illustrated the Gophers’ tenacity, it was early in the third quarter with UW leading 10-6.
The Badgers got the ball to start the second half and started from their 18th.
Graham Mertz missed Kendric Pryor on the first down and Allen was limited to 10 yards on the second down, creating an important third-and-7 game.
Mertz tried to hit Pryor on the right side, but the ball was thrown in too far and cornerback Justin Walley beat Pryor for the ball and the interception at the UW 28.
The Gophers scored in two games for a 13-10 lead.
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“You have to create sales,” said Leonhard. “That’s what’s going to get it done. It could be one. It could be three. You don’t know what you need.
“I like the challenge. We need to come out well in the first quarter to get this done.”
UW will need strong performances from Chez Mellusi, Allen and Isaac Guerendo to move the ball on the ground against a Minnesota defense that is third in the Big Ten against the run (102.5 ypg).
That trio combined for 232 yards against Nebraska last week, with Mellusi leading the way with 98 yards on 21 carries. His return after missing four weeks due to a broken forearm was crucial.
Offensive coordinator Bobby Engram acknowledged he was surprised Mellusi was able to handle so many carries.
“I think you go in with a pitch count in your head,” he said. “And you communicate with the position coach and talk about how he feels. He felt great. He just kept working. And boy, did we need him. He came back at the right time.
“He helped us a lot on Saturday. Guys feel that intensity. And he was hungry to be there again. He is a man who likes competitions and runs fast. It jumps off the line.”
Mellusi did not play in the loss to the Gophers last season due to the torn ACL he suffered three games earlier at Rutgers.
If he had been healthy, he could have eased the burden Allen had to bear.
“You put that tape on and it ran with a deeper purpose,” Mertz said of Mellusi’s play in Nebraska. “He has been through (injuries). He has some stuff for him. You have to go through things to have that pain and make it a real goal. He did that great. He’s a great player.”
UW’s defense must face the most prolific tailback in the Big Ten, Mohamed Ibrahim.
Ibrahim suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in the third quarter of the 2021 opener and so did not face UW.
The 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior leads the Big Ten in rushing at 152.4 yards per game, with 19 touchdowns, this season. He rushed 39 times for 263 yards last week in a 13-10 loss to Iowa and rushed for at least 100 yards in 19 consecutive games.
“It’s just impressive, the physicality, the consistency with which he walks,” said Leonhard. “He will make sure you have to earn it every time you have to tackle him. And he did that for a long time in that program.
“He sets the tone. You can see it. The offensive line feeds on it. The other running backs… they mimic his running style. They’re very consistent in what they ask of their backs.
“It starts with him. It’s impressive every time your best player is so consistent and productive.”
Can UW control the line of scrimmage and open lanes for the traffic jams and control Ibrahim this season?
“I hate to compliment a Minnes…a team out west,” said outside linebacker Nick Herbig, who had to sit out the first half after being ejected for targeting Nebraska in the second half. “But you have to show respect when respect is due. I’ve told people this before. I think he’s the best player I’ve ever played against. He’s really good.
“I think this will be our toughest challenge of the whole year. We have to bring it.”