Badgers and Gophers built similarly, love to run the ball
Both the Badgers and Gophers love to run the ball. Saturday's Axe game will come down to who can stop it.
By JESSE TEMPLEFS Wisconsin
MADISON, Wis. -- Even as Jerry Kill plows through Minnesota's most successful football season in a decade, a void remains that can only be filled with one result on Saturday: a victory against Wisconsin.
But Kill, the Gophers' third-year coach, recognizes there are reasons why past seasons have fallen flat and Wisconsin has maintained control of Paul Bunyan's Axe for nine consecutive games. And if BCS No. 25 Minnesota (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) is to finally upend No. 19 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1) when the teams meet at 2:30 p.m. in TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers will have to do nearly everything right.
"Offensively, defensively, kicking game-wise, Wisconsin has no weakness," Kill said.
That's high praise enough from a coach. Kill, however, lathered on a few more spoonfuls of admiration this week.
"I think this may be a team that’s better than the (Badgers) teams have been the last two years, and they played in Rose Bowls," Kill said. "I think they're a very good football team."
So how in the world can Minnesota beat this Wisconsin team? How can the Gophers even keep the game close when Las Vegas oddsmakers are pegging the Badgers as 16-point favorites on the road?
Kill has a pretty good idea, and it begins with stopping the Badgers' tremendous rushing attack. During the first two Wisconsin-Minnesota matchups of the Kill era, Wisconsin carried the ball a total of 99 times for 620 yards. While 310 rushing yards per game generally represents an abnormally high total, here's the scary part: Wisconsin is averaging 307.9 rushing yards per game this season.
"I've always said you've got to be able to run the ball to win and win championships," Kill said. "I don’t think there's any more demeaning thing than when somebody takes that ball and runs it down your throat and you can't stop it. And you get worn out in the fourth quarter."
Kill pointed to last year's game in particular as an example of Wisconsin's run-game dominance against Minnesota. Wisconsin led 14-6 at halftime but throttled Minnesota in the second half on the way to a 38-13 victory. James White ran for a 48-yard touchdown -- his third of the game -- and Montee Ball added rushing scores of 14 and 44 yards. The Badgers ran the ball a total of 54 times for 337 yards with five touchdowns.
"We've played hard," Kill said. "I think it was the middle of the third quarter and then they just wore us down a year ago. When somebody is pounding that ball 3, 4, 4 (yards), and the dangerous thing with the two backs they've got right now, it could go 4, 4, 70 because of their speed. When you're running the ball and you're doing it efficiently and you lay those big linemen on you over and over again, it takes a toll on you.
"So you've got to get off the field. If we let them stay on the field and just drive it, we're going to be in trouble. We've got to get off the field defensively."
That will be no easy task against a Wisconsin team that has the only 1,000-yard rushing duo in the country among FBS programs this season. Sophomore Melvin Gordon ranks No. 8 nationally in rushing yards per game (130.8), while White, a senior, ranks No. 14 (115.6).
Minnesota's best opportunity to counter Wisconsin's ground game is with a superb performance from its own rushing attack that keeps the Badgers' offense on the sideline. Gophers running back David Cobb leads the team in rushing yards (942) and has seven touchdowns. But quarterbacks Mitch Leidner (381 yards rushing, seven touchdowns) and Phillip Nelson (335 yards, six touchdowns) also are used in the running game.
Minnesota has actually run the ball more than Wisconsin this season. So far, the Gophers have rushed 466 times and passed 189 times for a 71.1-percent run-pass ratio. Wisconsin meanwhile has run 439 times and passed 248 times, running 63.9 percent of the time.
"It's pretty similar," Badgers safety Dezmen Southward said, before adding one caveat. "They'll run the ball more than us when we have 15 runs over 60 yards for touchdowns. So sometimes there aren't that many opportunities to run the ball.
"They're a smashmouth team. What you see is what you get. I think that’s going to be fun to play against. It's a little bit of deception in there. But for the most part, they'll run it downhill, they'll play-action throw it down the field. That’s what our offense is about. It's been about that all season. It'll be fun."
Badgers linebacker Chris Borland said there were instances in which Minnesota ran nearly identical plays to what Wisconsin's offense likes to use. Still, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen sees enough differences in the running game to keep the Badgers' defense on its toes.
"Their offense is a lot more built around the fly sweep, where the fly sweep for us is more of a smaller package," Andersen said. "So there's much more to defend with the way they go about it. It's basically set from a spread formation, not all the time, but a lot of the times. And it is truly part of their offensive scheme."
If Minnesota didn't face enough of an obstacle, there is this bit of information as well: the Gophers could be without leading receiver Derrick Engel, who suffered a knee injury last week in practice. That means establishing the ground game could become even more important.
And considering Wisconsin ranks seventh in the country in rushing defense, it could make the Gophers' task of snapping their nine-game border-battle losing streak even more difficult.
"With a team like this, you kind of know what they're going to do," Badgers nose guard Beau Allen said. "You've just got to line up and play and see who's tougher, who's going to get a push off the ball. That’s the kind of game I love."