Preview: Needed Efficiency

Although third downs were a problem on both sides of the football, No.20 Wisconsin and team captain Scott Tolzien are concerned about its offense's lack of flow and rhythm, a distinctive problem all season long. With Minnesota's patchwork defense coming to Madison Saturday, the Badgers could finally have their breakout game.

MADISON – Scott Tolzien didn't need to be reminded how bad the numbers were against Michigan State. Three days after Wisconsin's first loss of the season, the Badgers' senior quarterback had the numbers memorized, a painful memory of what could have been avoided.

Three of 11 on third down and 1 of 8 on first down passing.

"Those are the things that stick out to me," Tolzien said.

A lack of efficiency is something that has plagued No.20 Wisconsin (4-1, 0-1 Big Ten) since the opening game. In four games against FBS opponents, the Wisconsin offense has had 45 series (excluding the ones before halftime). Of those series, 27 series have been six plays or less (60 percent), and have only yielded 38 points for the offense.

In the loss to the Spartans, those paltry numbers Tolzien had engrained in his head allowed Michigan State to hold a time of possession edge of 12 minutes, 48 seconds. The last time an opponent held the ball for at least 10 minutes longer than UW occurred in the 2008 regular-season finale.

"We never got into a rhythm," Tolzien said of the setback in East Lansing. "We never got momentum going. We never got that big chunk of yards to start a drive. We need to be better. Look from day one with all the guys we have back and the experience we have. We need to be more consistent."

If the Badgers are looking for consistency, their Homecoming matchup against border-rival Minnesota (1-4, 0-1 Big Ten) provides a chance to find consistency, especially with a home night game against No.2 Ohio State and a road test at No.15 Iowa in the coming weeks.

Despite the Gophers leading the conference in time of possession, Minnesota defense has struggled to match its offense with plenty of weapons. The Gophers' defense is 10th in total yardage, last in scoring defense and has allowed 10 rushing and 10 passing touchdowns.

Few things have gone right for Minnesota Coach Tim Brewster since he took over the program. Entering his fourth season, Brewster is 15-28 overall (6-19 in the Big Ten), coached the team to its worst record in program history (1-11 his first year) and saw his team go from 7-1 in 2008 to 7-6.

In Minnesota's 29-28 loss to Northwestern Saturday, its fourth straight, the Gophers led by eight and allowed the Wildcats to score on consecutive fourth quarter possessions to win the game, prompting Brewster's seat to get even hotter and many fans around the program calling for his firing.

"The only thing I think about is coaching our football team," Brewster said. "Our football team is very close to be a really good football team … What we have to do is step over that line and take that next step.

"Our kids rebounded on Sunday and there was great energy in the building in preparation for Wisconsin. We'll take a fired up, excited group over to Madison on Saturday."

After being one of six teams in the country to average at least 200 yards per game rushing and passing last season, Wisconsin, despite its battles with consistency, is averaging 239 rushing yards and 206.6 passing yards.

"It's about being efficient as possible – getting a head on a hat in the run game and in the passing game, when the line gives us time, we've got to connect," Tolzien said. "We've got to catch passes and make plays."

In the same breath, Tolzien said the numbers show promise, seeing as UW has played the majority of the season without its top two wide receivers (David Gilreath and Nick Toon) and freshman running back James White has scored six touchdowns in two games, earning him consecutive Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.

In nine of the last 10 games against Minnesota, a Badgers' back has rushed for at least 100 yards.

"I'm excited because I really do believe, just because I know what John Clay can do, we probably have two of the best running back combinations that I've been around," UW Coach Bret Bielema said. "And that's been around some pretty good backs. It's not like you can't throw Montee Ball out, and get some good things done as well."

The other thing that has served as a confidence boost for the Badgers is Paul Bunyan's Axe having rested comfortable in the UW locker room since 2004. As much as the trophy means to the native of Wisconsin and the eight Minnesota players on the roster, the trophy has become just as important to the UW players from all parts of the country.

With that weight and pride that six-foot trophy carries, consistency and efficiency is a must.

"One of the first things you learn here when you come to school here that's Wisconsin-Minnesota is a huge rivalry game and one of college football's best," Tolzien said, a native of Rolling Meadows, Illinois. "There are a lot of pride involved it. Guys from all over learn how important that game is to the people of Wisconsin and this program."

Minnesota (1-4, 0-1 Big Ten) vs. No.20/19 Wisconsin (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten)

Date/Time - Saturday, October 9 at 11 a.m. CT

Stadium – Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/Field Turf)

Television - Big Ten Network (Jim Ressler, Eric Collins and Charissa Thompson)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas) and Satellite Sirus (ch. 91) and XM (ch. 196)

Series – Minnesota leads 59-52-8 (UW leads 29-21-6 in Madison)

Last Meeting – Wisconsin won, 31-28, on Oct. 3, 2009 in Minneapolis

Series Notes:

This will be the 120th meeting between the two teams with Minnesota leading the series 59-52-8. UW, which leads the series 29-21-6 in Madison, has won 13 of the last 15 meetings between the teams, including the last six in a row. That ties the Badgers' longest winning streak in the series (they won six straight between 1978-83 and again from 1995-2000).

This is the most-played rivalry in the FBS. The series has been played continuously since 1890 (except for 1906).

Saturday will be the 103rd Homecoming game at Wisconsin. The Badgers are 52-45-5 on Homecoming and have won five of their last six.

The winning team has scored at least 30 points (and is averaging 40.0 points) in each of the last 10 games.

Wisconsin Notes:

Since the start of the 2004 season (when head coach Bret Bielema joined the UW coaching staff as defensive coordinator) the Badgers have compiled a 39-4 record at Camp Randall Stadium. That is the best home record in the Big Ten over that span (Ohio State is 40-5 over that time period) and fourth-best in the country.

UW forced three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) at Michigan State, its first three-turnover game since the Indiana game on Nov. 7, 2009. The Badgers are now plus-2 on the season in turnover margin.

UW has allowed just 301.0 yards to its opponents, 25th in the country. Eight of Wisconsin's last 13 opponents have failed to surpass 300 yards of total offense.


Tolzien acknowledged that he needs to be more accurate and to find his receivers more. Tough statement, especially coming from a player that has a career pass efficiency rating of 147.0, the best in school history and sixth-best among active FBS quarterbacks with at least 20 games played. He ranks 19th in the country this year with a passer rating of 158.7, which would be tops in school history, and Tolzien wants more from him and his offense. Credit to him, but the blame doesn't fall all on the fifth-year senior.

Blame could be put on the UW defensive line, who, other than the solid season J.J. Watt is registering, has not adequately put enough pressure on the opposing offenses; the secondary, who could not stop Kirk Cousins on nine third downs, or UW wide receiver Nick Toon, who called for the football more this week despite dropping two passes against the Spartans. No question, this team has some rough corners that need to be ironed out.

On paper, Minnesota doesn't provide much of a challenge defensively, which means this weekend's game is a perfect opportunity for the defense to tighten the screws on the Gophers and allow the offense to have a dominate showing. Do that, and faith and hope are restored and Badger Nation feels a lot better about UW playing Ohio State next week.

Wisconsin is a 22-point favorite, but the last three rivalry games have been decided by four points or less. Minnesota's passing attack will make things competitive, but the Badgers will win by pulling away in the second half. Other than winning this game and retaining the axe, the most important thing about Saturday is to get some confidence heading into their toughest two games on the schedule.

Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 17

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 4-1

Against the Spread: 3-2

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