Gophers Defense Meets Badgers Offense

The Gophers defense has made marked improvement this year, but it will get a big test in a big rivalry game on Saturday.

After stacking up 601 total yards and 55 points against Indiana, Wisconsin's offense should be strutting around campus this week. Or maybe not.

A lot of teams have racked up big numbers against the Hoosiers. And while it's certainly a confidence builder, the Badgers should try to forget what happened because it will have little effect on Saturday's battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe at Camp Randall Stadium.

Minnesota's defense, which was as terrible last year as Indiana's happens to be this year, has transformed into a stingy, opportunistic unit that can ruin Wisconsin's presumed march to bowl eligibility.

None of the Gophers' last five opponents have managed more than two offensive touchdowns in a game. Minnesota also ranks second nationally in turnovers forced (27) and third in turnover margin (plus-15).

Those turnover statistics loom large because Wisconsin junior quarterback Dustin Sherer has been prone to interceptions and fumbles since taking over the job a month ago. He has seven turnovers on his account as opposed to four touchdowns.

Coach Bret Bielema knows better than to paint Sherer as a savior. With the running game going so strong recently, he'd be happy if Sherer becomes a solid caretaker.

"He put us in the right calls at the line of scrimmage," Bielema said of Sherer's effort at Indiana. "Not only in the running game, but was able to do some things in the passing game. … So he's beginning to make strides. You know, if he wasn't making strides, then we'd have to reassess where we're at. But as long as he continues to move forward, then we can move forward."

BADGERS NOTES

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: It has taken 10 weeks. It has required lots of patience while several key players healed wounds and while the Badgers sorted out some quarterback issues. But Wisconsin has finally become the dominant rushing team that so many expected. The Badgers lead the Big Ten and rank 10th nationally with 224.4 rushing yards per game. P.J. Hill and John Clay provide a one-two punch like few others in the country. They've taken a lot of pressure off QB Dustin Sherer, who'll make his fifth start this week. Sherer ranks 11th among Big Ten QBs in pass efficiency (107.03 rating).

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Wisconsin's pass defense already ranks No. 20 nationally, so it's not like it can't handle anything that's thrown at them (no pun intended). But the Badgers certainly will benefit from the fact Minnesota receiver Eric Decker, the Big Ten leader in receptions and TD catches, won't play due to a lingering high ankle sprain. That will allow the Badgers to devote more attention to QB Adam Weber's running ability, as well as that of RB DeLeon Eskridge.

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Minnesota at Wisconsin, Nov. 15 — Three words: Paul Bunyan's Axe. Three more words: Earn bowl eligibility. Clearly, there's no shortage of items on the line in this year's edition of this immortal rivalry. The Badgers have won the last four games with the Gophers and 11 of the last 13, though nearly all of the games in the 21st century have been battle royales.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB P.J. Hill — The big man is back. After a disappointing, injury-plagued start to the Big Ten season — when he rushed for just 234 yards and one score in a five-game stretch — Hill has put up back-to-back 100-yard games against Michigan State and Indiana. The redshirt junior is up to 845 yards and nine TDs for the year, as well as 3,626 yards and 38 rushing scores for his career.

WR/KR David Gilreath — As if the Badgers weren't good enough with Hill and redshirt freshman John Clay churning out yards from the backfield, this sophomore wideout has added an extreme alternative to the rushing attack with his end-around runs. While Indiana never adjusted and allowed Gilreath to roll up 168 rushing yards and two scores, Minnesota will pay closer attention. Gilreath's numbers will go down, but his teammates should find more room to maneuver.

S Jay Valai — The redshirt sophomore took the job away from an incumbent starter during the off-season. He has made the decision look great, particularly in recent weeks as he keeps knocking opponents off the field with his huge hits. Minnesota QB Adam Weber should know where Valai is, for he'll be sneaking into the box to make plays against Minnesota's run game. Valai ranks second on the squad behind MLB Jaevery McFadden in tackles with 52. He also has forced three fumbles and earned one sack.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You know, he was a highly recruited player on our board. We wanted him as bad as anything." — Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema on Minnesota redshirt sophomore QB Adam Weber, who picked the Gophers over the Badgers. He ranks second in the Big Ten in TD passes (11) and third in total offense.


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