MINNEAPOLIS — In two Big Ten games, the Golden Gophers defense has been run all over in losses to Iowa and Northwestern.
In the conference opener late last month, it was Hawkeyes running back Mark Weisman gaining 177 yards on 21 carries as the Gophers fell, 31-13. One game later, Wildcats running back Venric Mark surpassed Weisman’s rushing total as he picked up 182 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Minnesota.
“The last two games, our opponent was more ready that we were,” Gophers safety Brock Vereen said.
The running defense has become a concern for the Gophers, and Minnesota is set to face its toughest test of the year Saturday. Jerry Kill’s team travels to Madison to take on the rival Wisconsin Badgers. In order to have a chance at bringing Paul Bunyan’s Axe back to Minnesota, the Gophers will first have to slow down Wisconsin senior running back Montee Ball.
Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist a year ago when he tied the NCAA record for most touchdowns with 39. He also gained 1,923 yards on the ground, tops among all FBS players.
After electing to come back for his senior year instead of turning pro, Ball started slow. He was the victim of an assault on campus during the summer and suffered a concussion in the attack. Once he was back on the field, Ball did not look to be the same runner. Despite 100-yard games against Northern Iowa and Utah State, Ball ran for just 61 yards in a loss at Oregon State and only 40 yards on nine carries against UTEP before leaving with another head injury.
But a big game last Saturday against Purdue was an indication that perhaps Ball is regaining his old form. He racked up a career-high 247 rushing yards and found the end zone three times in a Badgers rout.
“I believe everything is just coming together,” Ball said this week. “I most definitely wasn’t playing my best football at the beginning of the season. It finally started to click with me. I think I just started trusting everything, trusting the system, which I always have. … It felt great to finally get back and play with my team and do the right things on the field that gets us victories.”
After that performance, Ball is averaging 116.6 yards per game, fourth-best in the Big Ten and ahead of both Mark and Weisman. Ball’s 11 total touchdowns are tied with Mark for the most in the conference.
“He’s an elite back,” Vereen said of Ball. “He was up for the Heisman. He has so many accolades and everything. But at the same time, we can’t get bought up into that. Once we hit the field, he’s just another running back.”
When the Gophers and Badgers met last year at TCF Bank Stadium, Ball had 166 yards on 23 carries and found the end zone twice. As a team, Wisconsin racked up 283 rushing yards in a 42-13 win over Minnesota.
Last weekend, Ball and the Badgers gained 467 total rushing yards as a team. Aside from Ball’s 247, backup running back James White had 124 yards on 16 carries. Redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon chipped in 80 yards on seven carries.
When Wisconsin’s win over Purdue was complete, the Badgers had run the ball a total of 57 times. Minnesota won’t be surprised when its defense is fed a steady diet of Wisconsin rushes.
“I think that’s just who they are,” Kill said. “I think Wisconsin didn’t get where they’ve been over the years without having identity, and their identity is running the football.”
Added Gophers defensive lineman D.L. Wilhite: “If they could not pass one time, I’m sure they’d be perfectly happy with that.”
In losses to Iowa and Northwestern, Minnesota’s defense was susceptible to big plays. Weisman had consecutive carries of 27 and 44 yards that set up an Iowa touchdown. Mark, meanwhile, had four carries of 25 yards or more, including a 48-yard touchdown in which he scampered into the end zone untouched.
Ball last week had a career-long 67-yard touchdown run against Purdue. If Minnesota hopes to slow down Ball, the Gophers must first eliminate the big plays and the mental lapses that have hurt them so far in the Big Ten.
“We’re going to try to cut down on our mental errors here. That’s the big thing,” senior linebacker Mike Rallis said. “We’ve got to play good assignment football. Everybody’s got to do their job. Obviously, any time you play Wisconsin, you’ve got to bring your big-boy pants.”
FOX Sports Wisconsin’s Jesse Temple contributed to this story.