GAME NOTES: With a spot in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game on the
line, the 22nd-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers and 14th-ranked Wisconsin
Badgers meet in the regular season finale on Saturday afternoon.
The winner of his bout will play in the league’s title tilt as the West
Division’s representative. East Division champion Ohio State has already
secured its place.
Minnesota has quietly made a name for itself this season, as coach Jerry
Kill’s club sprinted out to an 8-3 record, and with its 5-2 league ledger, is
just a game back of the Badgers, who come in at 9-2 overall and 6-1 in
With wins over Michigan, Northwestern and Purdue to open conference play, the
Golden Gophers were high on the fact that they could actually challenge for
the division title, but losses in their next three games raised some doubt.
Fortunately, UM responded by battling back to knock off nationally-ranked
Nebraska, on the road no less, last Saturday, 28-24, to set up this week’s
showdown with Wisconsin.
The Badgers have enjoyed another stellar campaign, but they put themselves in
this precarious position after suffering a 20-14 loss at Northwestern back on
Oct. 4. They bounced back to post six straight victories, with the latest
being a 26-24 decision at Iowa last Saturday.
With a win in this contest, Wisconsin will play in the Big Ten Championship
Game for the third time since its inception in 2011. The Badgers won the first
two in defeating Michigan State (42-39, 2011) and Nebraska (70-31, 2012),
Minnesota leads the all-time series with Wisconsin, 59-56-8, but the Badgers
have closed the gap by winning the last 10 meetings, including a 20-7 decision
in Minneapolis last season.
This game boasts a pair of punishing rushing attacks, although Wisconsin’s has
certainly been more productive. Still, the Gophers have a talented back on
which to rely, as David Cobb has picked up 1,430 yards while scoring 12 TDs in
helping the team average 228.9 ypg on the ground. With Cobb handling much of
the heavy lifting, QB Mitch Leidner (1,445 yards, 10 TDs, eight INTs) hasn’t
had to do a whole lot, other than run the offense as efficiently as possible.
Maxx Williams is the leading receiver, but with only 28 grabs for 418 yards,
although he has caught seven TD passes.
As for the Minnesota defense, it has performed admirably in permitting just
22.5 ppg, which ties it with Ohio State for the fifth-lowest scoring yield on
average in the Big Ten. The Gophers are among the league leaders in turnover
margin (+11). Damien Wilson is the team’s top tackler with 103, which is 35
more than his closest teammate.
Leidner simply wouldn’t led the Golden Gophers quit last weekend at Nebraska.
Trailing 21-7 at halftime, the visitors stormed back to earn the thrilling
victory, as UM’s signal caller rushed for a game-high 111 yards and two TDs.
His passing exploits (8-of-17, 135 yards, two sacks) left quite a bit to be
desired, but with the ground game doing its thing, he didn’t need to air it
out much. Cobb generated 80 yards and a score on 15 carries before exiting
with a hamstring injury, while Williams and KJ Maye combined for five catches
and 95 yards.
The Minnesota defense did a solid job of keeping Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah
from single-handedly taking control of the game as it held the talented RB to
98 yards and a TD on 20 totes. In all, the Cornhuskers finished with 397 total
yards, but lost a pair of fumbles, suffered four sacks and lost the time of
possession battle by nearly 10 minutes. De’Vondre Campbell paced the Gophers
with 11 tackles.
Coach Kill praised the attitude his team displayed as last week’s game wore
on, and how it was a reflection of the spirit in which the Gophers have
attacked the season.
“They are mentally tough, we talk about mental toughness throughout the season
and to be physically tough. Today our kids were mentally tough and just hung
in there and played hard.”
The nation’s leading rusher wears a Wisconsin uniform, as Melvin Gordon has
enjoyed a record-setting campaign. Gordon, a bona fide Heisman contender, set
the new FBS single-game rushing record on Nov. 15 against Nebraska with 408
yards, but that benchmark lasted all of one week, as Oklahoma freshman Samaje
Perine topped it by 19 yards last Saturday against Kansas.
While Gordon is disappointed to lose the record so soon, he won’t let it deter
him from the task at hand. In fact, he followed his record-setting performance
with another outstanding effort in last Saturday’s narrow win at Iowa, as he
rushed for 200 yards and a pair of TDs to become the 17th player in FBS
history to reach 2,000 rushing yards in a season. He reached the mark faster
than anyone in FBS history, doing so on 241 carries, and his effort also tied
former UW star Ron Dayne’s Big Ten single-season rushing record (2,109 yards).
Wisconsin almost blew a 16-point lead to the Hawkeyes, but with Gordon towing
the line, it held on for the narrow win. The yardage totals in the game were
almost dead even (405 for UW, 412 for UI), but of course the rushing yards
were skewed heavily in favor of the visitors (266-101). Joel Stave was
efficient in hitting 11-of-14 passes for 139 yards, but he is rarely asked to
do more than steer the ship, so to speak.
The UW passing attack is an afterthought for the most part, as it accounts for
only 141.7 ypg. Stave and Tanner McEvoy have taken the majority of the snaps,
combining for just over 1,500 yards, 11 TDs and 10 INTs. Alex Erickson leads
the receivers with 39 catches for 491 yards, and he has three TD receptions.
With pass plays being few and far between, it’s no wonder Wisconsin leads the
league in fewest sacks allowed (eight).
The Badgers rank second nationally in scoring defense (16.1 ppg) and third in
total defense (259.3 ypg). Their effort against the run yields fewer than 100
yards per contest, while they lead the Big Ten in pass defense (162.2 ypg).
Michael Caputo heads the team in tackles with 81, and he recorded 11 stops,
both forced and recovered a fumble, and broke up a pass against Iowa.
Like Kill for Minnesota, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen heaped praise on
his team for standing tall in the face of some adversity last weekend.
“I’m so proud of these kids and the way they kept fighting. All three phases
contributed which was great to see, but just the fight when things don’t go
your way you have a lead that you feel pretty good about and all of a sudden
it’s right back in.”
Cobb has deemed himself ready to go in this clash, and if he is truly healthy
that makes the Gophers that much more dangerous. Still, winning at Camp
Randall Stadium, particularly with so much on the line, won’t be easy. When
the dust settles between these run-heavy, physical teams, expect the Badgers
to be the ones left standing.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Wisconsin 27, Minnesota 20