Gophers Preview: Minnesota vs. Wisconsin

ELast Week

Minnesota vs. Wisconsin

when: 2 p.m., Saturday
where: Metrodome
TV: Big Ten Network

Although the Gophers played undoubtedly their best defensive game of the season, yielding just 296 yards of total offense while giving up on average 526 per week, the struggling and inconsistent offense of Minnesota could not sustain enough scoring drives to keep up as the Gophers fell to Iowa, 21-16. Allowing only 68 yards and zero points in the second half, Minnesota’s defense uncharacteristically shined against the Hawkeyes.

The Badgers outrushed No. 13 Michigan 232-47 en route to a 37-21 victory last Saturday. Wisconsin’s defense stifled the Wolverines running attack, which averages 193 a game, to just 1.9 yards per carry. Replacing regular starter P.J. Hill, freshman running back Zach Brown ran for 108 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin also had two players with more than 100 yards receiving in senior wide out Paul Hubbard (134) and junior tight end Travis Beckum (106).

How they stack up

Offense

The Gophers were able to out-gain their opponent in total offensive yards for the first time this season against Iowa last Saturday, but still struggled in the running game. Freshman quarterback Adam Weber led Minnesota on the ground with 70 yards, followed by 49 by freshman running back Duane Bennett. Although Minnesota’s offense struggled mightily for the majority of the game, it was able to click with less than two minutes left for a 15-play, 96-yard drive that finished with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Weber to sophomore Eric Decker.

Wisconsin’s offense has been consistent for most of the season, ranking in the middle of the pack in nearly every Big Ten offensive category. However, the Badgers are among the nation’s best in time of possession, which has been obtained through their ability to run the ball well and also because of their efficiency in the passing game. Sophomore running back Hill is ranked fourth in the conference in rushing at 108 yards per game, while senior quarterback Tyler Donovan is third in the Big Ten in pass efficiency.

defense

Although the defense had its overall best performance last Saturday, Minnesota remains last in the Big Ten scoring defense, rushing defense, pass defense and total defense. The Wisconsin game will be the last for many seniors who have been a staple on the defense for the past few years, in safety Dominique Barber, linebackers Mike Sherels and John Shevlin and cornerbacks Desi Steib and Jamal Harris. Look for the seniors to have another solid defensive effort Saturday in their last college football game.

Wisconsin has been above average on defense this season, but played excellently last week in holding a run-happy Michigan team to just 47 yards on the ground. The Badgers are also strong in the secondary, ranking 23rd in the nation in pass defense. Sophomore Shane Carter is tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions with six. Wisconsin does, however, struggle in red zone defense, sitting last in the conference by allowing 90 percent of offenses within the 20-yard line to score.

Special Teams

One of the highlights for Minnesota last Saturday was junior Joel Monroe’s career-long, 54-yard field goal that he blasted in on the final play of the first half. Freshman return man Harold Howell missed another game last week, this time from a coaches’ decision.

Badgers senior kicker Tyler Melhaff leads the Big Ten and is tied for 20th in the nation by making 18 field goals this season. He also is third in the Big Ten in field goal percentage, hitting at a 90 percent clip.

Players to watch

Ernie Wheelwright WR No. 1 Senior

Although he has not been as noticeable of late, Wheelwright still ranks seventh in the Big Ten in receptions and ninth in receiving yards per game. Look for the senior wide out to have a big performance in his final game for the Gophers on Saturday.

P.J. Hill RB No. 39 Sophomore

After not playing two weeks ago and only getting five carries in last week’s victory, Hill should be ready to go on Saturday to take on the Gophers. The sophomore has been up and down this season, but when he is on, he can easily break for 150-plus yards on the ground, having done so three times this season.

Thoughts on the Game

“I’d like for all of the seniors to have a chance to play in this game, to have an impact in this game. They’re the guys I feel haven’t gotten their just reward this season. Sixteen wonderful kids that didn’t ask for this change to take place, but the change happened. They’ve been unbelievably resilient; they’ve competed each and every week in a very great manner. They’ve done a great job off the field … I want them to have an impact on this game against Wisconsin Saturday, and I want them to take tremendous pride in this program and where we’re going in the future.” -Gophers coach Tim Brewster on Minnesota’s seniors

“This week with the Minnesota game, a rivalry game, playing for the axe. A lot of history, and we’ll educate our players during the course of the week. Talked a little bit about it yesterday, about what that involves. I think our kids are excited to play in the dome, an NFL stadium environment, and obviously we’ve got a border rivalry, so there’s all things involved in recruiting process with certain kids on our teams. And we expect to get a tremendous effort from Minnesota.” -Badgers coach Bret Bielema on the game