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Gophers vs. Badgers: 5 things you can count on

The Gophers will face the Badgers with Paul Bunyan's Axe and bowl eligibility on the line.
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The Minnesota Gophers will wrap up the regular season when they host the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday afternoon. Whether there will be a postseason for the Gophers is yet to be determined.

At 5-6, the Gophers won't just be battling for Paul Bunyan's Axe. They'll be looking to become bowl-eligible for the fifth time in the past six seasons.

The rivalry with the Badgers is always unpredictable, but with a lot on the line here are five things you can count on heading into Saturday's game.

1. The Gophers need an encore from Athan Kaliakmanis

The hype train for the Gophers quarterback started one year ago when Kaliakmanis shredded the Badgers for 319 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-16 win at Camp Randall but this year hasn't turned out as planned.

Kaliakmanis has been inconsistent this year, completing just 52.6 percent of his passes for 1,671 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions but he has six touchdowns and one interception over his last three games.

While Fleck has asked less of Kaliakmanis in recent weeks, he'll also need him against a Wisconsin defense that has allowed just under 100 rushing yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry over its last three games.

With Darrius Taylor and Zach Evans uncertain due to injuries, Kaliakmanis and the passing game will need to take advantage of the Badgers, who routinely live in single-high coverage. With Wisconsin safety Hunter Wohler questionable after suffering an injury in last week's win over Nebraska, the passing game should have opportunities and could be needed on Saturday afternoon.

2. The Badgers putting the ball in the air

When the Badgers arrive at Huntington Bank Stadium, they won't look like your father's or even your brother's Wisconsin offense. Head coach Luke Fickell and offensive coordinator Phil Longo have brought the Power Air Raid to Madison and it has had mixed reviews this season.

The face of the change has been SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai, who tossed 72 touchdowns in his final two years with the Mustangs but has just four passing touchdowns this season for the Badgers.

Part of this is Wisconsin's lack of playmakers on the outside. Will Pauling and Skyler Bell have paced the Badgers' passing attack but have a combined 90 targets between 0-and-9 yards this season. The number of option routes has also required Mordecai to hold onto the ball, with Pro Football Focus charting 61 percent of his dropbacks over 2.5 seconds.

With Mordecai also posting an adjusted completion percentage (which accounts for drops and other things the quarterback can't control on a play) of 78.4 percent in a clean pocket this season, it will be on the Gopher pass rush to get after him before he can make plays downfield.

3. The Gophers defense allowing big plays

One of the downfalls for Minnesota this season has been their tendency to allow big back-breaking plays. While this has been an issue all season long, it's been an even bigger one in their disappointing losses with 17 plays of 20 or more yards allowed in games against Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern.

While the Badgers like to throw it short, they also have a tendency to create big plays. Wisconsin averages just over 100 yards per game after the catch this season and a missed tackle or blown assignment could turn a small play into a huge gain.

The Gophers could get a boost here if Cody Lindenberg is able to return after missing the past two games due to injury. But limiting Wisconsin after the catch will be a big deal to fix Joe Rossi's struggling defense.

4. Braelon Allen is a problem in the backfield

At 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, Allen invokes memories of Ron Dayne, who stood 5-foot-10 and 245 pounds. But even with the Badgers' shift to an Air Raid system, the Badgers' rushing attack remains one of the biggest threats.

Wisconsin ranks 11th in the nation in rushing play success this season and Allen continues to make a living with an average of 3.66 yards after contact.

While Allen has been a monster in the backfield, he also has flaws with 14 pressures allowed in pass protection and just 47 total rushing yards in two career games against the Gophers. After allowing 89 yards on 22 carries against a similar running back in Illinois' Kaden Feagin (6-foot-3, 250 pounds), the Gophers will need to contain Allen and challenge him in pass pro to neutralize Wisconsin's biggest threat.

5. This game is P.J. Fleck's Super Bowl

When Fleck was hired back in 2017, he approached a fan who told him that the Gophers could go 1-11 if the win came against Wisconsin. Fleck has carried that with him throughout his tenure and even referenced that moment after defeating the Badgers in Madison last season.

Fleck's comment wasn't received well at the time and is even more important after a disappointing year. The Gophers are 5-6 and some want Fleck fired even though he's brought the program its most successful stretch in the past secondary.

Coming into this year, the Gophers had won nine or more games in three straight full seasons for the first time since they did it in six straight seasons from 1900 to 1905. He ranks third in program history with a .598 winning percentage and fifth in overall wins (49) and Big Ten wins (26), but his tenure still feels disappointing because they haven't been able to reach another level.

That level isn't going to be achieved this year but a win over the Badgers can go a long way to easing the public perception. Fleck could leave it all on the field in an attempt to beat Wisconsin and there's a good chance that's exactly what they could do on Saturday afternoon.

Prediction: Gophers 17, Wisconsin 13