Badgers pose difficult test as heavy favorites

Minnesota will face an uphill battle against Wisconsin.

Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien hoists Paul Bunyan's Axe after last season's Badgers victory over Minnesota on Oct. 9 at Camp Randall Stadium.

Mark Vancleave, Daily File Photo

Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien hoists Paul Bunyan’s Axe after last season’s Badgers victory over Minnesota on Oct. 9 at Camp Randall Stadium.

Adam Richard

Minnesota hosts the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium to battle for Paul BunyanâÄôs Axe. This game will be the 121st in the interstate rivalry and Minnesota hasnâÄôt won since 2003. 

The Badgers came into the season with high expectations, but back-to-back last-minute losses to Michigan State and Ohio State derailed their national championship dreams.

âÄúThere are no weaknesses on that football team,âÄù Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. âÄúThey are two plays away from being top two or three in the country, maybe the top team in the country.âÄù

WisconsinâÄôs senior quarterback Russell Wilson leads the conference in passing yards and touchdowns. 

Wilson played minor league baseball with the Colorado Rockies organization last year and previously was the quarterback for North Carolina State. He had one year of eligibility left and transferred to Wisconsin to play football and attend graduate school.

Kill called him âÄúthe difference in their whole football team.âÄù

He added: âÄúHe plays on a different level than anybody else in college football.âÄù 

The Gophers are coming off two good performances, and the play of their quarterback, MarQueis Gray, has been the difference as well.

Gray notched career-bests in completions, yards and touchdowns last week against MSU. He has progressed slowly through the year, battling cramps and a turf toe injury, but has played the entirety of the last three games. 

He appears more comfortable andconfident now than at other points of the season.

âÄú[Gray] has got a lot more confident. HeâÄôs become more of a leader instead of a friend.  HeâÄôs coming out as the leader of the team,âÄù the GophersâÄô Devin Crawford-Tufts said.

Crawford-Tufts will return after suffering a quad injury against MSU. 

 âÄúI hate Wisconsin. IâÄôm excited to play in this game,âÄù he said. 

Gray has hooked up with DaâÄôJon McKnight for 41 receptions on the year, and no other receivers have more than 13 receptions. 

The BadgersâÄô pass defense is second in the conference and its focus will likely be on McKnight.

On the opposite side, Wilson has spread the ball around to his top-two receivers and tight end.  Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis have a combined 1,193 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Safety Kim Royston, who used to play for the Badgers, transferred to Minnesota after the 2007 season.  Royston will have the task of trying to defend the BadgersâÄô high-powered passing attack while balancing coverage in the equally dominant Wisconsin rushing attack. 

While the passing game has been successful, the BadgersâÄô bread and butter has always been their running game, starting with big offensive lineman. That line has blocked well this year, paving the way for Montee BallâÄôs 1,076 yards and 21 touchdowns. 

The GophersâÄô defense will have its work cut out for it against this bigger, more experienced line.  The BadgersâÄô offensive line averages 320 pounds âÄî bigger than the Green Bay Packers.

The GophersâÄô two defensive ends are freshmen, averaging 238 pounds. 

âÄúTheyâÄôre big, but the bigger they are, the harder they fall,âÄù  defensive end Ben Perry said. âÄúYouâÄôve got to hit, you play low, you play with leverage and you can play against anybody.âÄù

Wisconsin excels on its third-down conversions, which is one area in which the GophersâÄô defense has improved dramatically. 

Each week of the Big Ten schedule, Minnesota has reduced its opponentâÄôs third-down success rate, down to only 30 percent against MSU on Saturday. 

The BadgersâÄô run defense has been suspect this year. It has the two leading tacklers in the Big Ten in linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, but is surrendering 137 yards per game on the ground. 

MinnesotaâÄôs running backs have not had much success, however.  Senior running back Duane Bennett is the only back with a 100-yard game this season.  Gray has added two with his scrambling ability, but the Gophers will need to establish the running game to have success Saturday. 

Minnesota will have its hands full against a Wisconsin team that has national championship-caliber talent.