Wisconsin-Minnesota Preview

After two stunning losses which threatened to ruin its season, Wisconsin returned to form last week to earn a critical victory in the Big Ten race. The 16th-ranked Badgers now hope they can continue dominating the longest rivalry in the FBS as they look to stay on track.

Visiting Wisconsin tries to keep Paul Bunyan's Axe as it goes for its eighth straight victory over Minnesota in the 121st meeting between the schools.

Last-minute losses at then-No. 15 Michigan State on Oct. 22 and at Ohio State on Oct. 29 took Wisconsin (7-2, 3-2) out of the national championship picture and dealt a serious blow to the Badgers' conference title hopes.

Wisconsin responded with a 62-17 win over lowly Purdue last Saturday, racking up 605 yards of offense and 364 rushing - its most yards on the ground since gaining 441 against Indiana on Nov. 8, 2008. Montee Ball ran for a career-best 223 yards and three touchdowns, giving him an FBS-high 21 rushing TDs.

''We needed this,'' Ball said. ''Badly.''

Russell Wilson, the nation's leader with a 196.7 passer rating, went 15 for 20 for 205 yards and two touchdowns, adding 76 yards and a score on the ground. Wilson said the two losses - on a Hail Mary pass by the Spartans and a TD strike with 20 seconds left versus the Buckeyes - could have crushed the team's morale, but the Badgers stayed level-headed.

"You don't want to get too high. You don't want to get too low," he said. "And I think the main thing is just staying even keel throughout the entire season and just being ready for our next opponent."

The key win has Wisconsin tied for second with Ohio State in the Leaders Division - two games back of No. 12 Penn State - and the Badgers can at least keep pace with their 15th win in 17 games against Minnesota.

Wisconsin, though, has yet to win a true road game, with its only victory away from Camp Randall Stadium coming by a 49-7 score over Northern Illinois at Chicago's Soldier Field on Sept. 17.

While the Badgers have dominated the Golden Gophers of late, history suggests they'll be in for a tough battle at TCF Bank Stadium.

The last 12 meetings in Minnesota have been decided by an average of 4.5 points, with Wisconsin winning three straight by seven or fewer points.

Wisconsin has averaged 425.8 yards of offense and 238.8 rushing in taking all five meetings with Minnesota under coach Bret Bielema.

James White had 118 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in a 41-23 win in the last matchup Oct. 9, 2010.

While Minnesota (2-7, 1-4) ranks 10th in the conference with 427.6 yards allowed per game, its offense has shown signs of improvement the past two weeks.

The Gophers beat Iowa 22-21 on Oct. 29 to give first-year coach Jerry Kill his first Big Ten win, and they took then-No. 15 Michigan State down to the wire in a 31-24 road loss last week.

MarQueis Gray went 19 for 32 for 295 yards and three touchdowns -setting career highs in each category - while adding 71 yards rushing on 21 attempts.

"He played awfully good. He gave us an opportunity (to win)," 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."

Da'Jon McKnight set career highs with nine catches and 173 yards, and his three touchdowns matched a career best.

"I think what they've been able to do is define the packages for (Gray)," Bielema said. "McKnight and him, obviously, have got a very special relationship, especially when it comes down to getting in the end zone."

Their breakout performances came against the nation's second-ranked defense, and they'll have to crack another tough unit this week. Wisconsin ranks 11th in the country with 294.2 yards allowed per game.

Minnesota has been held to fewer than 100 yards rushing in each of the last three meetings with Wisconsin. The Gophers haven't beaten a ranked Badgers team since a 28-21 victory Oct. 23, 1993.

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