Minneapolis, MN – The 16th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers have lost both of their true road games this season, and they hope for a better result as they travel to Minnesota this weekend for a Big Ten Conference clash with the Golden Gophers.
Through the first six games of the season, Wisconsin looked like a legitimate national title contender, having beaten all six of its opponents by 31 points. Unfortunately, back-to-back single-digit losses to Michigan State and Ohio State in enemy territory crushed the hopes of the Badgers. They are two games back in their Big Ten's Leaders Division with three to play. The club did rally for a 62-17 romp over Purdue last weekend, proving that it remains focused.
"Two weeks that seemed like an eternity have come to an end," Badgers' head coach Bret Bielema said.
As for Minnesota, it played Michigan State tough last weekend but fell on the road by a 31-24 final. That defeat dropped the Golden Gophers to 2-7 overall, and they stand at just 1-4 in conference action under head coach Jerry Kill.
"We wanted to take a few shots," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said after the thriller at Michigan State. "Game plan-wise, I think we gave ourselves a chance to win."
Minnesota leads the all-time series with Wisconsin by a 58-54-8 margin in the most-played FBS rivalry, but the Badgers posted a 41-23 win in last season's meeting.
Against Purdue last week, Montee Ball was downright dominant for the Badgers, as the stud tailback gained a career-high 223 yards and reached the end zone three times.
"We needed this," Ball said. "Badly."
Quarterback Russell Wilson completed 15-of-20 passes for 205 yards and two TDs, and the versatile performer ran for a score as well. James White pitched in two rushing scores for Wisconsin, which posted 605 total yards of offense while limiting Purdue to 284 yards. A pair of interceptions were notched by the Badgers, and they permitted only 2-of-10 third-down conversion attempts to be successful.
Through nine outings, Wisconsin is generating 47.0 ppg and 503.2 total ypg, outstanding numbers for a well-balanced offensive team. Sure, the run is the bread-and-butter for the Badgers, accounting for 34 touchdowns and 5.7 yards per attempt, but they have actually posted more passing yards and rushing yards to date because of Wilson. He has completed 71.6 percent of his passes for 2,238 yards and 21 TDs with only three INTs. Ball has run for 21 scores of his own and has 1,076 rushing yards under his belt.
Opponents are scoring 16.1 ppg and 294.2 total ypg against Wisconsin, numbers that would obviously be even better if not for the two poor showings against Michigan State and Ohio State. If can certainly be argued with validity that it was the defense, and not Wilson's offense, that let the Badgers down against both Michigan State and Ohio State.
Challenging that Wisconsin defense this week will be a Minnesota offense that posted 415 total yards against Michigan State last week. MarQueis Gray put forth a tremendous effort under center, passing for a career-high 295 yards and three TDs while rushing for team-high 71 yards. Sure, he did throw a pair of costly interceptions, but the good did outweigh the bad.
"He played awfully good," said Kill of Gray. "He gave us an opportunity," Kill said. "I think at the end of the game, the kid was physically exhausted. He gave everything he had but that's how you learn."
All three touchdowns went to JaJon McKnight, who finished with 173 yards on nine catches. He leads the club with 41 catches for 628 yards and had just one score before last week's outburst. Gray owns a team-best 571 rushing yards with three TDs, and he has thrown for 1,235 yards with seven scores and six INTs. Still, there is plenty of room for improvement offensively, as the Badgers are averaging just 18.7 ppg and 315.8 total ypg. Defensively, they are giving up 33.7 ppg and 427.6 total ypg, so there is plenty of opportunity to get better on that side of the ball as well.
Minnesota is yielding 5.1 yards per rushing attempt, and the pass defense has been weak as well, permitting opposing quarterbacks to toss 17 TDs with a mere three INTs. The fact that Kill's club has just six takeaways in nine games is a major reason for the 2-7 record.