Badgers’

Michael Dougherty

When a defense is ranked fifth in the nation and gives up fewer than 10 points a game, it should be difficult to overlook.
Then again, Wisconsin’s football team also boasts an offensive line that averages 326 pounds per player and a tailback built like a bowling ball.
The No. 8 Badgers present a multi-faceted power attack, but their 8-0 start has a lot more to do with its ability to stop the ball, not advance it.
Led by defensive ends Tom Burke and John Favret, the Badgers are giving up just more than 250 total yards a game, including 67 per game on the ground (2nd in the nation).
Burke leads the Big Ten in sacks (16) and tackles for loss (24), and Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said his play and leadership have been crucial in developing a dominating defense, one that concerned Alvarez before the season started.
“The question mark on our defense was going to be how our freshman corners were going to respond,” Alvarez said. “Thus far they have played very well, which has allowed us to control the passing game better than any team since I’ve been here.”
Jamar Fletcher and Mike Echols have benefited from the great Wisconsin run defense and the immense pressure that players like Burke and Favret can put on the quarterback.
Fletcher leads the conference with four interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns in back-to-back games with Purdue and Illinois.
Coupled with the Badgers’ stingy run defense and the Gophers’ murky quarterback situation, however, Burke and Fletcher might spend most of Saturday watching 258-pound tailback Ron Dayne pound Minnesota’s defense relentlessly.
“Their type of offense really lends to their success on defense,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said. “When you’re playing ball-control offense, you shrink the game for the defense.”
Dayne is part of a Badgers offense that averages a six-minute edge over their opponents in time of possession, and runs for more than 225 yards a game.
Mason said he knew the Badgers would top the conference standings this season, but didn’t figure they would be doing it so much with defense.
“The biggest surprise has been defense,” Mason said. “I’ve been saying that for weeks, but no one listens to me.”
But they have been waiting and listening for Mason to announce who will start at quarterback on Saturday.
Andy Persby is still hobbled by a thigh bruise suffered in the Michigan State game and is doubtful for the game. Billy Cockerham strained his right shoulder in the first quarter of the Michigan game last Saturday and has been taking the majority of snaps in practice, but his status still remains in the air.
That leaves sophomore Ryan Keller as the only remaining healthy quarterback with any game experience, but that experience has come at wide receiver.
Keller entered the season as the third signal-caller, but moved to wide receiver to make better use of his athletic skills. However, he has temporarily moved under center to help out in this injury crunch.
With either Keller or Cockerham at less than 100 percent, the Gophers will likely have to rely on a running game that showed some flashes of success early in the Michigan game.
“We have to spread their defense out,” tailback Thomas Hamner said. “What they like to do is stack the box, and put seven, eight, sometimes nine people in the box to stop the run.”
Gophers linebacker Parc Williams, meanwhile, said the defense needs to force the Badgers to the air and try to take Dayne out of the game.
“One thing you’ve got to do with him is hang on and try to gang tackle or take him down low because if you hit him up high he’s going to just carry you along,” Williams said. “He’s so low to the ground and so heavy and strong, you’ve got to hang on for dear life and wait for your buddies to get there.”