Minnesota's run defense surprisingly stout versus potent Wisconsin
NOV 23, 2013 7:42p ET
Sure enough, Wisconsin came out with a run-heavy offensive game plan, rushing 45 times. Yet Minnesota's defense held its own against one of nation's top running games in Saturday's 20-7 loss. Those 45 carries went for 221 yards, the second-lowest rushing total for the Badgers all season. The only team to hold Wisconsin to fewer yards on the ground was Ohio State, which limited UW to 104 rushing yards back in late September.
"Really, it's all about protecting our house," Gophers defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman said about limiting Wisconsin's running game. "Wisconsin has a good running system and O-line and two great running backs. The fact that we kind of bowed our necks and just kind of stopped the running game, I feel like it's definitely an improvement and it encourages the defense more."
From Wisconsin's first play from scrimmage, it appeared as if the Badgers were ready to run the ball down Minnesota's throat all day. Senior tailback James White, one of UW's two 1,000-yard backs, took his first carry for a 49-yard gain down to the Gophers' 12-yard line. But the Gophers' defense stood tall after that, holding Wisconsin to a field goal -- and to just 148 yards rushing the rest of the game.
White finished with 125 yards and a 1-yard touchdown, while teammate Melvin Gordon had 69 yards on 12 carries. Minnesota had high praise for both backs leading up to Saturday's game, but Wisconsin's rushing attack didn't change the game in the way many believed it would.
"Against a football team like that, and certainly the way they run the ball, I thought we did a good job in the run game," said Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. "We play hard on defense. We just didn't make enough plays on the offensive side of the ball."
Because Minnesota was able to limit Wisconsin's run game, the Badgers actually took to the air with some success. Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave was just 6-for-14 for 44 yards at halftime but was 6-for-6 on the Badgers' opening drive of the second half. He finished with 127 yards through the air, including a 2-yard touchdown pass to his go-to target, Jared Abbrederis.
Usually, stopping Wisconsin's running game is a recipe for success. Minnesota did that, but didn't get the result it wanted.
Passing game struggles without Engel: Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson was without his top target Saturday as Derrick Engel was out with a knee injury. Minnesota's passing game wasn't the same without him.
Nelson finished just 7-for-23 for 83 yards and zero touchdowns in Saturday's loss. While he wasn't helped out by a number of drops from his receivers, Nelson also misfired on several passes. He couldn't hit an open Drew Wolitarsky on the Gophers' opening drive and missed a wide-open Maxx Williams on a 4th-and-6 play in the fourth quarter.
"There were definitely a couple of those," Nelson said when asked if there were plays he'd like back. "Winning the football game comes down to a couple plays. We had five or six chances there that we just let slip."
Engel was listed as questionable leading up to Saturday's game, but there are rumors that the senior from Chaska, Minn., suffered a torn ACL in practice. Minnesota has yet to confirm the severity of Engel's injury, and he did limp onto the field in uniform before the game to be recognized for Senior Day.
Before his injury, Engel led the Gophers in receptions (25), receiving yards (401) and touchdown catches (5). In his absence, Minnesota now has to find another target for Nelson. The sophomore quarterback targeted true freshmen Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky plenty in Saturday's game, but Jones had just one catch and Wolitarsky didn't have any.
Williams, a tight end, led the Gophers with two catches for 31 yards, while Cobb also caught two passes for 14 yards. The numerous drops and the inability of Minnesota's receivers to get open Saturday only magnified how much the Gophers needed Engel.
"That's definitely a setback there, but at the same time I've very confident in the rest of the receivers," Nelson said. "Derrick's a great player. We're definitely going to miss him. But at the same time, I think we definitely have some guys who know what to do. They're capable of running and doing their jobs. You can't really base anything off of one or two players on a football team."
Cobb tops 1,000-yard mark: It's been seven years since Minnesota had a 1,000-yard rusher. Junior David Cobb was far from the likeliest candidate to do so for the Gophers when this year began. He entered fall camp as the third-string back and had just one carry as a sophomore in 2012.
Yet with 68 rushing yards in Saturday's loss, Cobb topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season. His effort against Wisconsin pushed him to 1,010 years on the year.
"Maybe if I would have ran a little harder I could have got a little more," Cobb said after the game.
Cobb was third on the depth chart to start the year, behind Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams. Kirkwood nearly topped 1,000 yards last year and looked poised to do so this season. But he suffered an early-season injury and has been limited ever since. Meanwhile, Williams has also been hurt and missed a game due to off-the-field issues.
That opened a door for Cobb, who ran right through it en route to 1,000 yards. Saturday was the first time in five games that he didn't top the 100-yard mark in a game, but reaching the milestone is a sign of just how far he's come during his career at Minnesota.
"David's a great story," Kill said. "He hung in there when it was difficult early in his years, and he started to mature and learned what it takes to play. ... It's great to see, and that's a reason we're 8-3. You've got to be able to do those things."
Gophers don't blame loss on weather: The temperature at kickoff Saturday was just 18 degrees fahrenheit, the coldest game in the five-year history of TCF Bank Stadium. With the late November chill, both teams had heated benches on the sidelines while players wore extra layers. Fans, meanwhile, did whatever they could to stay warm during the game, huddling under blankets or multiple jackets.
The chilly and windy conditions lent themselves to a game with little passing, but Minnesota didn't use the cold weather as an excuse for its inability to move the ball through the air.
"I'm never going to blame the cold," Kill said. "Shoot, they had to play in it, too. I think both teams played their tail end off. It was a good football game. I'm sure the weather affected both teams a little bit. That's the way college football's supposed to be, in my opinion.
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