Madison, WI (SportsNetwork.com) - 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 conference.
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), respectively.
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."