Border Battle Can't Overshadow Defense

The Minnesota-Wisconsin border battle is filled with subplots, but Wisconsin's defense will have a lot to say about the outcome.

It's Border Battle week, which means even the tiniest storylines of the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry will be examined thoroughly. Remember how Gophers safety Kim Royston used to be a Badger? How will Wisconsin's recruiting within Minnesota's borders be affected by the Gophers' new outdoor TCF Bank Stadium? Didn't coach Bret Bielema get his job at Wisconsin because new Minnesota defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove left the Badgers six years ago?

Then there's the Wisconsin-only stories that can focus on the Badgers' resurgent offense under redshirt junior Scott Tolzien. Not only does the first-year starter lead the Big Ten in pass efficiency, but the Badgers rank second in the league in points (36.0) and yards (428.0) per game.

But what's flying under the radar is the Badgers' fly-around defense. In the old days, opposing coaches would say they knew exactly what they'd see from Wisconsin: A solid 4-3 defense that would stick to the basics, stick to its rules and try to out-vanilla you with fundamental play.

This year, though, the Badgers have whipped together a unit with seven new starters that goes out of its way to try to make plays. They're seventh in the league in scoring defense (23.8 ppg) and eighth in total defense (371.8 ypg), but they're tied with Iowa for the lead in takeaways with 12.

"For the most part, the plays that are there, our guys have made, and that's been a huge, huge change," Bielema told reporters. "This group is not a bend-don't-break. I don't think (my defense) was either. But these guys, what I liked on Saturday (against Michigan State) was we got pressure with just some four-man rushes. No one had really been pressuring their quarterbacks — no matter which one was in there — very much to this point, and that's what gets me excited about Saturday."

Wisconsin must put pressure on Minnesota third-year quarterback Adam Weber or he'll pick apart the Badgers. At the same time, Northwestern put decent pressure on Weber last week, but he kept either wriggling free to make a positive play or he found the right play to throw away the ball and avoid a sack.

NOTES

  • Junior QB Scott Tolzien earned his first Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award after shredding Michigan State's defense for four touchdowns. Tolzien also posted career-highs in completions (19) and attempts (31) against the Spartans. He leads the Big Ten in pass efficiency (164.3 rating), which puts him on pace to set the single-season school record. Tolzien also has gone three consecutive games without a turnover, but it helps that the Badgers' offensive line shares the national lead with just two sacks allowed in four games.

  • Wisconsin's offensive line hardly has skipped a beat despite injuries to three of its top eight players. Incumbent center John Moffitt missed all but a few series of the first three games, then returned to the lineup at left guard last week. Junior Bill Nagy, expected to be the starter at right guard, has missed all but a few series this year. True freshman center Travis Frederick, who stepped into Moffitt's job after his injury, hurt his ankle in Week 2 and hasn't played since. Despite all of this juggling, the Badgers rank No. 2 among Big Ten teams in total offense (428 ypg) and scoring (36.0 ppg).

    SERIES HISTORY: Minnesota leads 59-51-8 (last meeting, 2008, 35-32 Wisconsin).

    SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: What's not to love about Wisconsin's balanced pro-style attack? The Badgers boast 791 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground to go with 921 yards and 8 TDs through the air. Meanwhile, QB Scott Tolzien (with occasional guest-star appearances from redshirt freshman Curt Phillips) has spread out his throws in a balanced manner. Wide receivers own 35 of the team's 70 receptions, while tight ends have 30 catches and running back Zach Brown has 5. Senior TE Garrett Graham continues to enhance his NFL resume. His 3 TD catches last week against Michigan State gave him 13 for his career.

    SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Badgers' 4-3 defense isn't the greatest at preventing yards, but it continues to be a crew that forces turnovers in situations big and small. Wisconsin owns 12 takeaways, including 3 INTs by senior safety Chris Maragos, to give the team a league-best plus-5 turnover margin. Senior DE O'Brien Schofield paces an improving pass rush with 7.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks, but the athleticism of youngsters such as outside linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland gives the Badgers more ways to confuse quarterbacks and cause havoc.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Since I've taken over, I have never had so many requests for tickets from Wisconsin people — people that I know and then, just, my whole staff (has been bombarded, too)...so I think it's something that's going to be exciting for all of college football." — Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema speaking on the atmosphere leading up to the Badgers' first appearance at Minnesota's new TCF Bank Stadium.
    NOTES

    THIS WEEK'S GAME: Wisconsin at Minnesota, Oct. 3 — The Badgers finally hit the road and they run smack-dab into their rivalry game. The Gophers are riding high after winning at Northwestern and are eager to regain Paul Bunyan's Axe. Wisconsin has won five games in a row and 12 of the last 14 between these two teams, but Minnesota has somehow ratcheted up the intensity since Tim Brewster came to town in 2007. Please note that just one of the last 11 games at Minnesota has been decided by more than 7 points.

    KEYS TO THE GAME: Minnesota's offense pretty much goes as far as WR Eric Decker's hands and RB Duane Bennett's feet can take it. The duo combined for all 5 touchdowns in last week's win at Northwestern. Wisconsin's trio of sophomore cornerbacks — Antonio Fenelus, Devin Smith and Aaron Henry — need help from the safeties to keep Becker from enhancing his resume as the Big Ten's leading receiver. Forcing someone else to step forward is half the battle. Meanwhile, Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien needs to accept what Minnesota's zone defense gives him.

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    QB Scott Tolzien — The redshirt junior has jumped to No. 13 nationally in pass efficiency (164.3 rating), which puts him somewhere between 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and Houston gunslinger Case Keenum. He hasn't turned over the ball since Week 1 and seems perfectly willing and able to go through his progressions and hit the open guy. Against Minnesota's zone defenses, that should be a relatively risk-free way to chew up yardage.

    RB John Clay — The sophomore came off the bench last week and finished 1 yard shy of his career. Clay toted the rock a personal-high 32 times for 142 yards and a touchdown against Michigan State. Since Minnesota hasn't been too good against the run (144.5 ypg) and won't have one of its top linemen due to suspension, this figures to be another busy Saturday for the nation's No. 21 rusher (80 carries, 398 yards, 4 TDs)

    WR Isaac Anderson — This junior enjoyed his biggest day in last year's 35-32 comeback win over the Gophers. Anderson piled up career-bests in catches (6) and yards (114) and also returned kicks. Did we mention that Anderson grew up in Minneapolis and his parents, Melvin and Lisa, starred in football and track, respectively at the University of Minnesota?

    ROSTER REPORT

  • RG Bill Nagy (heel) didn't play last week against Michigan State, but coach Bret Bielema believes he'll be able to help against Minnesota. C Travis Frederick (ankle) apparently continues to be out.

  • Senior safeties Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant won't return to the team after having their appeal denied to have their suspensions lifted.


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