Gophers: Badgers easy to prepare for, tough to stop

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football
team knows exactly what Wisconsin plans to do offensively on Saturday.

That won’t necessarily make it easier to stop the Badgers.

Wisconsin certainly doesn’t shy away from the fact that it
wants to run the ball early and often. It’s the way the Badgers have done
things ever since Barry Alvarez was the head coach years ago. That
ground-and-pound style hasn’t wavered even as Bret Bielema and now Gary
Andersen have coached the team.

“That’s who they are, and they haven’t changed that
identity,” said Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. “They may have changed
coaches, but I think coach Alvarez is a very smart guy in who he hires and what
he does. Offensively, I can remember watching them way back, so they haven’t
changed offensively and they’re not going to. Why would you change something that’s
like that?”

The Badgers are currently second in the Big Ten in rushing
yards per game (307.9) and boast two 1,000-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and
James White. Against a porous Indiana defense last weekend, Wisconsin rushed
for 554 yards in its 51-3 win. That included 100-yard performances by Gordon,
White and freshman Corey Clement, while wide receiver Jared Abbrederis ran for
86 yards and two touchdowns on three carries.

Minnesota’s rushing defense has been middle-of-the-road in
the Big Ten; the Gophers are giving up 147.0 yards per game on the ground,
seventh-best among conference teams. But Minnesota has yet to face a rushing
attack like the one it will see Saturday when Wisconsin comes to town.

“They put the ball down and just run,” said
Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. “It’s going to be easy for us
to prepare for them because all they do is run the ball. They’ve got great
running backs and a great O-line, so it’s really just a man’s game. You have to
be ready for it.”

In last weekend’s win against Indiana, Wisconsin opened with
a 93-yard touchdown run by White, who finished with 205 yards on 20 carries.
Limiting the two-headed monster of White and Gordon is one thing, but
eliminating big plays like that is something different.

Hageman and Minnesota’s defensive line know they’ll be in
for a long day, but the Gophers’ defensive backs will also have to stay sharp.
If Wisconsin’s running backs get into the secondary, they have the ability to
make defenders miss.

“As a secondary, these games are the trickiest ones
because you can’t fall asleep,” said Minnesota safety Brock Vereen.
“They have a heck of a receiver, one of the best in the Big Ten. If you do
fall asleep — which is what they want you to do — he’s going to make plays.
Even if it’s a run-heavy game, it’s not a game where the DBs get to slack off
or anything. If anything, we’ve got to be even more focused.”

While Minnesota is still looking for its first 1,000-yard
rusher since 2006 — David Cobb is close with 942 yards — Wisconsin already
has two backs that have reached that mark this year. On Saturday, the Gophers’
main focus will be stopping Gordon and White.

“It’s a 1-2 punch — really it’s a 1-1 punch,”
Vereen said. “Either of them could start just about anywhere, so we’ve got
to wrap up and we’ve got to swarm tackle. We’ve got to get off blocks and we’ve
got to be physical.”

Kill will remain in press box: Perhaps Jerry Kill is
a little bit superstitious. The Gophers head coach will once again be in the
coaches box for Saturday’s game against Wisconsin, the fifth straight game
he’ll observe from up above.

Kill first made an appearance in the press box during
Minnesota’s game at Northwestern, which was his first game since announcing
that he was taking time away from the team to focus on treatment for his
epilepsy. Since then, he’s been in the box each week as his involvement on game
days has continued to grow.

Given that Minnesota has won each of the four games he’s
watched from the box, Kill won’t change anything up for Saturday’s rivalry
game. That means defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who is serving as the
acting head coach, will remain on the sideline.

“I’m going to do the same thing I’ve been doing. It’s a
two-fold thing,” Kill said. “We’re doing very well on how we’re
working together and doing it. The second thing, I think that’s what’s best for
our football team right now.”

Kill has said that being up higher in the press box has
given him a different vantage point to watch the games from. While he hasn’t
yet indicated when he’ll return to coaching from the sideline, it’s clear that
Kill has enjoyed his time in the press box.

“Some people (have) a knack to being on the field and
being able to see things. I had a gift for that, and I was blessed with it, but
I still can’t see like I can up there,” Kill said. “The great thing
for me is you can operate things up there on all sides of the ball, and you get
to watch the communication with our staff. …

“It really hasn’t changed, except it’s a lot warmer for
me and a lot colder for coach Claeys. And I’m getting older; I go to the
bathroom when I want to because there’s so many TV timeouts. And I can’t hear
anybody. Everybody’s booing me, and I can’t hear that either. So it’s pretty
good to be in that box. I might stay in there and put my cot in there. It’s a
pretty safe place to be.”

Nelson gets second shot at Badgers: The first time
Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson took the field as a college player, it was at
Camp Randall Stadium against a team he grew up watching. Before Nelson starred
at Mankato West High School in Minnesota, he lived near Madison and attended
Badgers games. His father, Pat, played for Wisconsin in the 1970s.

Nelson’s debut last year was less than stellar as he was
thrown into the fire midway through Minnesota’s season. He was 13-for-24 for
149 yards and a pair of interceptions in the Gophers’ 38-13 loss to the
Badgers.

But Nelson has come quite a long way since then. He’s
completing nearly eight percent more of his passes than he did as a freshman,
and he’s thrown seven touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last four games
— all Gophers victories.

“It’s definitely night and day,” Nelson said of
his play from his debut to now. “I think we as a team have grown since
then as well. It’ll just be interesting to get out there and compare from last
year”

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