The Wisconsin Badgers (8-3, 5-2) hope to rebound from their disappointing loss to the Northwestern Wildcats last week -- but more importantly, keep Paul Bunyan's Axe in their possession when they face the Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-6. 2-5) at TCF Stadium on Saturday.
Minnesota leads the all-time series against Wisconsin 59-57-8, with a record of 37-24-2 in Minneapolis. The Badgers look to continue their 11 years of dominance against their rival.
To help us preview the game and what to expect from this year's Minnesota squad, Mark Mowery from The Daily Gopher graciously answered our questions. Make sure to check out the Q&A I did with him for TGD as well.
The Gophers are 5-6, 2-5 in the Big Ten. Though their record is under .500, Minnesota's played Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa very tough. What's been the overall theme with this 2015 team?
MM: The overall theme for the team has been adversity. Said adversity has come in several forms. One form was a plethora of injuries that wrecked havoc on both sides of the ball and exposed the lack of depth within the Gophers' roster. Another form was the sudden retirement of coach Jerry Kill due to health concerns and the brisk turnaround to deciding on a new head coach in Tracey Claeys. A final form of adversity has been the surprised quality of schedule Minnesota encountered this season. The Gophers' schedule currently ranks as the 3rd most difficult in all of FBS this season (according to S&P+). Before the onset of the season, many of the Gopher faithful were confident in the ability of Minnesota to reach 8 wins again. However, the quality of Iowa, Michigan, and to an extent TCU, was underestimated. No one thought before the season looking at the schedule that the slate would end up being top 5 in difficulty. If we combine this with the injuries and coaching change, you get a team with a lot of promising young talent showing itself but a disappointing record of 5-6 after two 8-win seasons.
With Jerry Kill having to step aside, how have the players adopted to new head coach Tracy Claeys?
MM: It appears, at least from an outsider's perspective, that the transition has been relatively seamless and the players have eagerly adopted their new head coach. Since the rest of the staff is still intact, Claeys has merely designated main defensive responsibilities to defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel, while he takes the place of Jerry Kill in making head coaching decisions. It seems that the 2015 recruiting class has stayed mostly intact (though that could change in the coming months) and it seems that the team has been able to perform at a respectable level even with the coaching change occurring and the injuries piling up. Though since Kill retired the record stands at 1-3, the offense has taken steps forward and the games have been competitive against quality competition.
With the offense that's ranked 96th in the FBS in total offense (Wisconsin's not that much higher at 80th), what have been the bright spots and low spots for the Gophers? Is freshman running back Shannon Brooks, who's won back-to-back Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, the real deal?
MM: The last few weeks have been bright spots for the offense, especially the output against the highly ranked (2nd in S&P+) Michigan defense a few weekends ago. Specific players that have allowed this positive trend to come to fruition include true freshman center Tyler Moore, who has brought a dose of nastiness and consistency to a hodge-podge offensive line, true freshman wide receiver Rashad Still, who has good height and size for a freshman, and, as mentioned by you, true freshman running back Shannon Brooks, who has been trucking Big Ten defenders for the better part of the last month and a half with some consistency. In addition to these true freshman showing signs of life and improvement, redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Leidner has played within himself and passed with great competency and enough consistency to allow the offense to look completely functional at times against the likes of Michigan and Iowa. He wasn't asked to do much against Illinois but avoided turning the ball over, which is essential to the Gophers' offensive cause.
Minnesota's 38th in total defense, giving up only a shade over 355 yards per game. Who could give Wisconsin problems, and which players could the Badgers exploit on Saturday?
MM: Cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun are always a good bet to cause opposing offenses problems. Wisconsin would be wise to attack the less experienced safeties in the passing game or look for the underneath routes against a linebacking core that has been slowed by various maladies. Or, they could just do what Wisconsin has been known to do against Minnesota the last decade and just run the ball down the Gophers' throats. It would be especially wise to employ this particular strategy on Saturday because Minnesota will be without their two starting defensive tackles in Scott Ekpe and Steve Richardson.The lack of cohesion and gap coverage in the middle of the defensive line could spell huge problems for the Gophers' front seven and a big day for even a hobbled Corey Clement. While redshirt junior Yoshoub Timms and sophomore Andrew Stelter have done their best, they aren't of the same quality as Ekpe and Richardson. A possible wildcard on defense is redshirt sophomore safety Duke McGhee, who was thrust into the main defensive lineup against Illinois last week and played like a man possessed recording 12 tackles, one for a loss, and two pass break ups. It will be interesting to see how he performs after his breakout game.
What are your keys to the game, and your game prediction?
MM: I think a major key to the game will be the Gophers' ability to stop the running game of Wisconsin without committing an extra defender to the box. If they can stop the Badgers from getting massive chucks of yards on the ground and force Stave/Houston into uncomfortable predictable passing downs, I think the defense has a fighting chance to at least stay afloat. A timely turnover or two would obviously be something to look for as well. I think whichever team doesn't cough the ball up in a key spot may prevail as the winner. Furthermore, when Minnesota has the ball, if they can establish a rhythm with Shannon Brooks early and keep Leidner relatively clean (there will be sacks for Wisconsin on Saturday, it's just a matter of how many), the offense should be able to should it's part of the bargain. While the Wisconsin defense is an elite unit, the Gophers have faced the second, eighth, 28th, and 16th ranked defenses in the country the last four weeks, respectively. I don't see them being phased by facing another quality unit, especially at home.
Vegas, the computer nerds, and just about every other kind of predictor out there has this game as basically a toss up. I predict a closely contested game with opposing offenses taking their shots back and forth, much like the contest last year in Camp Randall. However, this time, I think the home field advantage, the desperation to finally retain the Axe, and the desire to get to a bowl game finally push the Gophers over the hump. A late Ryan Santoso field goal brings back memories of Rhys Lloyd and Minnesota prevails 27-24.