This is the 12th in a 12-week Friday series looking at the Wisconsin football team’s 2014 opponents.
Minnesota’s football program is on the rise in coach Jerry Kill’s fourth season with the team. The question as it pertains to Wisconsin, however, is this: Are the Gophers good enough to challenge for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, or is the gap between the two programs still too wide?
Minnesota finished last season 8-5, which marked the first time the Gophers won at least eight games since 2003. The Gophers also won four straight Big Ten games for the first time since 1973, including victories against Nebraska and Penn State. In nearly every way, the season was deemed a success.
But if you’re looking for reasons to call last season something short of special, here are two of them: A 20-7 loss against Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium and a 21-17 loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl. Wisconsin won its 10th consecutive game in the border series and has won six of those contests by double digits.
Wisconsin and Minnesota will meet Nov. 29 at Camp Randall Stadium for the regular-season finale in a game that very well could decide whether the Badgers win the Big Ten West. Can the Gophers snap their losing streak, or will Badgers fans be joyfully singing "Build Me Up Buttercup" in the fourth quarter once again? Here’s a look at what Minnesota might have to offer:
Personnel: Mitch Leidner is expected to be the full time starter for the Gophers at quarterback, and without having to split time, he has a chance to come into his own. A year ago, Leidner appeared in 10 games and completed 55.1 percent of his passes for 619 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
"He’s been awesome," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover told the Minneapolis Star Tribune this offseason. "I think Mitch looks at himself as the starter, and the undisputed leader of the offense, and probably the team. And so there’s a confidence about him. He’s the guy holding other guys accountable."
The question for Leidner is how well — and how much — he will throw in 2014. As a redshirt freshman last year, he was much more effective running the ball. He carried 102 times — second most on the team — and tied for the team lead with seven rushing touchdowns. By contrast, he threw the ball only 78 times. Leidner completed 7 of 15 passes for 74 yards during the team’s spring game, and he was sacked twice and threw the game’s only interception.
This is a team that likely will rely heavily on its ability to run the football. The Gophers ran on 68.6 percent of their plays last season, and the ratio might be similar in 2014. Minnesota returns running backs David Cobb, Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood. Cobb led the team in rushing yards (1,202) and scored seven touchdowns, while Williams added 332 yards with three touchdowns and Kirkwood 120 yards. Redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards is another player to watch in the backfield. He had the longest rush of the team’s spring game on a 33-yard touchdown run.
At wide receiver, Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones return, but they’ll have to take a significant step up to make the passing game a factor for Minnesota. The two players combined last season for 25 catches, 416 yards and just one touchdown. Tight end Maxx Williams also is back and could provide a safety valve for Leidner. He recorded team highs last season in receptions (25), yards (417) and touchdown catches (five).
Defensively, Minnesota loses NFL Draft picks Ra’Shede Hageman (38 tackles, team-high 13 tackles for loss) and Brock Vereen (59 tackles). Still, the Gophers return three of their top four tacklers: defensive back Cedric Thompson (79 tackles), linebacker Damien Wilson (78 tackles) and defensive back Antonio Johnson (69 tackles), as well as defensive back Eric Murray (52 tackles). Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell (41 tackles) certainly will help the linebacker corps be strong in the Big Ten.
Jones status: The status for tailback Jeff Jones, the highest-rated Gophers recruit in years, remains in flux as the 2014 season approaches. Jones was unable to raise his ACT score, and it is uncertain if he will qualify academically to play at Minnesota this season. He re-took two summer school classes and will await word from the NCAA clearinghouse. As a high school senior at Minnesota Washburn, he rushed for 1,525 yards and scored 42 total touchdowns.
No favors: Minnesota finished last season 4-4 in Big Ten play, and if the Gophers hope to improve on that record, they’ll have to close better than last year, when they lost games to Wisconsin and Michigan State. Minnesota’s final four games are against Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Those four teams combined to go 24-8 in Big Ten play a year ago.
Lopsided rivalry: Minnesota owns a one-game edge all-time in its border series against Wisconsin, holding a 58-57-8 record. But the series has not even been close as of late. Since 1995, Wisconsin is 17-2 and has won 10 straight games. During the current 10-game winning streak, the Badgers have outscored the Gophers 372-210, an average score of 37-21. Last year’s game, a 20-7 Badgers victory, was the first time during that stretch in which Wisconsin failed to score at least 31 points.