Competition level increases

The Gophers return to a higher level of competition in the Big Ten this weekend. Find out where they might be most vulnerable against Wisconsin and where they can exploit the Badgers.

The Gophers are the No. 1 offensive team in the Big Ten and have a running attack that is as good — if not better — than any in the country.

But just how good are the Gophers?

After opening the season with six straight wins — many against poor non-conference opponents — the Gophers lost back-to-back games against Michigan and Michigan State in painful fashion. They have since bounced back with one-sided wins against weak sisters Illinois and Indiana.

Now they jump back into the fire against Wisconsin and Iowa to close the regular season. Are the Gophers up to the improved level of competition?

All signs say that the answer is yes.

They should have beaten Michigan. They held a 21-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter before John Navarre obliterated the secondary with his pinpoint passing. The Gophers were clearly in a funk when they kicked off the following week against Michigan State. They fell behind big, but rallied in the fourth quarter and were an onsides kick away from maybe winning that game.

Head coach Glen Mason knows his team will be going to a bowl game. Wins over Wisconsin and Iowa will likely send them to a New Year's bowl game.

Unleashing the full offense is a key to winning both games. The Gophers ran the ball at will against Indiana last week, but that's not likely to happen against the Badgers. Look for Asad Abdul-Khaliq to hit the Badgers with a few big passes early. If he can do that, the running attack is likely to take over later on.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: While the Gophers love to run the ball, they can also throw it with Asad Abdul-Khaliq at quarterback. The Badgers have a soft pass defense in the Big Ten — they give up 241.9 yards per game — and Minnesota should be able to take advantage of this weakness. WR Aaron Hosack has the size and strength to defeat smaller cornerbacks and Jared Ellerson has the speed to make long plays. As usual, Marion Barber, Laurence Maroney and Thomas Tapeh get the job done on the ground.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Gopher defense is average against the run. That is Wisconsin's strong point and the Badgers should have Anthony Davis back in the lineup. If Davis' ankle is back to full strength, he will test a Gopher run defense that is giving up 126.5 yards a game, which is sixth in the Big Ten.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Aaron's a big-play guy. Most of the time, he's going to tower over cornerbacks so he has an advantage anyway. So if I get in a sticky situation, he's kind of an outlet. He's been getting open and I've been hitting him." — Minnesota quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq on WR Aaron Hosack.

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Wisconsin at Minnesota, Nov. 8 — Get ready for a pinball-type scoreboard when these teams meet in the Metrodome. The Gophers should prevail at home, but the Badgers are getting healthier with QB Jim Sorgi likely to return to the lineup following a knee injury. If RB Anthony Davis is healthy, this game could go to the team with the ball last.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq — After taking it easy against Indiana, look for the quarterback to go to work on the vulnerable Wisconsin secondary. Abdul-Khaliq has a 17-4 TD-interception ratio and is capable of having a sensational game against the Badgers.

WR Jared Ellerson — He is a big-play specialist. He scored on a 13-yard reverse against Indiana, but he can go up and get it, and run with it once he comes down. Ellerson leads the Big Ten with an average of 22.0 yards per catch.

INJURY IMPACT: Defensive lineman Anthony Montgomery (ankle) is questionable for Saturday's game against Wisconsin.

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