Defense not enough against Badgers

by Murali Balaji

If the performance of the Gophers’ defense against Wisconsin could stand alone, it would rank among their best overall efforts of the season.
However, Saturday’s 26-7 loss to the Badgers can be attributed to the Gophers’ inability to move the ball and poor play on special teams. Quarterback Billy Cockerham started the game strong, but as the game wore on, he simply couldn’t overcome the fierce pass rush and outstanding coverage of Wisconsin.
“We just wanted to come out there and contain them,” Badgers’ defensive end John Favret said. “We didn’t want Cockerham to come out and make plays against us.”
Favret and All-American lock Tom Burke (two sacks) made life miserable for Cockerham, closing off the corners and limiting his passing. By sticking freshman cornerback Jamar Fletcher on leading receiver Luke Leverson, the Badgers forced the Gophers to utilize their other options.
Freshman Ron Johnson had a career-high nine receptions for 100 yards, but was held out of the end zone. Leverson had three receptions, including a 53 yard touchdown in the first half, but was shut out by Fletcher in the second half.
“They went after our cornerbacks, and our guys answered,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. “I thought Jamar played outstanding.”
Fletcher’s tough man coverage on Leverson made it difficult for Cockerham to wait in the pocket for his first read; by the time a play would develop, the junior quarterback was on the ground, thanks to Wisconsin’s ferocious pass rush.
“We had to play our positions and make our reads,” said Fletcher, who picked off Cockerham once. “(Cockerham) can make a lot of plays with the ball and I think he looked off a lot and spread it around.”
Cockerham may have been bad, but the Gophers’ running game was virtually non-existent. After running back Thomas Hamner bounced off-tackle for a 15-yard run on the team’s first possession, the rushing attack put up all of 13 yards on the next 23 carries.
“I thought we had to come out there and stop the run early,” Favret said. “If we could do that, we thought we could do a lot of other things defensively.”
While the Gophers’ offense squandered another outstanding defensive effort, it was the punting game that came up short — literally — in the game.
“I was not pleased with certain phases of our kicking game and that was indicative of some of the field position we did not have,” Gophers coach Glen Mason said, referring to punter Ryan Rindels’ inability to get the ball out of Gophers territory.
The Gophers essentially played one-dimensional football to stay in the game with Wisconsin. The defense repeatedly stuffed the run and prevented running back Ron Dayne from breaking any long runs.
“There were times when Ron was going to break one, and they made the tackles,” Alvarez said. “To hold us to three’s (field goals) instead of touchdowns, I just tip my hat to them.”
The Wisconsin offense, predicated on pounding the ball with Dayne, played right into the Gophers’ scheme. The defense stacked against the run and forced Wisconsin quarterback Mike Samuel to air it out.
“It was frustrating not being able to do what we’re capable of doing,” Samuel said. “But their defense just did a heck of a job on us.”
The Gophers’ success in limiting the Badgers’ offensive output was a credit to their excellent timing on run blitzes, as well as the Badgers’ inability to bounce plays to the outside.
“They really tried to box me in,” Dayne said.
In the end, however, the Badgers’ opportunistic defense and excellent special teams secured their ninth victory and kept them undefeated. With Michigan State’s upset of top-ranked Ohio State, Wisconsin is firmly in the driver’s seat for a trip to the Rose Bowl, pending this week’s matchup against Michigan.
Meanwhile, the Gophers’ defeat leaves them searching for answers on how to inject life into a stagnant offense.