Righting the Opening Wrongs

In its first loss of the season, No.20 Wisconsin struggled in the run game, on third down and had its two pass-catching weapons bottled up. It was a drastic change one week later, as the Badgers pummel Minnesota, 41-23, and get the needed confidence to square up against Ohio State.

MADISON - With its toughest two-game stretch of the season on the horizon, No.20 Wisconsin needed a complete performance to not only silence the doubters, but give itself some confidence with the soon-to-be top-ranked Buckeyes and Hawkeyes looming.

Consider Saturday then the perfect blend. Wisconsin retained Paul Bunyan's Axe and thanks to a sluggish second and final quarter, showed that it can still play better and the ceiling hasn't been reached.

"There's still room to improve," said senior captain and guard John Moffitt. "We've got another half of the season left and how we respond this week (preparing for Ohio State) will be crucial."

Just like the Badgers' domination against Austin Peay, Wisconsin couldn't ask for a better performance against an inferior opponent. From an offensive standpoint in the Badgers' 41-23 win over Minnesota, Wisconsin (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) turned around all problem areas that had bubbled up in last week's loss to Michigan State.

After both were held under 100 yards a week ago, the running back tandem of John Clay and James White exploded against Minnesota's rushing defense, ranked second-to-last in the Big Ten (185.6 ypg).Clay did most of the heavy lifting to distance Wisconsin from Minnesota in the third quarter, scoring two of his three touchdowns and finishing with 111 yards.

White added to running game with career highs in yards (118) and carries (19). Over the last three games, Wisconsin's thunder and lightning have combined for 93 carries for 670 yards and 12 touchdowns.

"We were both running with a lot of confidence today and that's what we have to do each and every week," White said. "If we go out there and play consistent like we did today, we'll be all right."

Clay had 33 yards on his first four carries, including runs of 18 and 12 yards, against Michigan State, but was never the same after getting hit on his left ankle near the end of the first quarter after getting hit on his left ankle. He finished with 17 carries for 80 yards, seeing his streak of 100-yard rushing games – longest in the nation – end at 10.

He showed no ill effects Saturday. Clay took his first carry for 13 yards right up the middle and capped off UW's second drive with his team-leading seventh score of the season. It was a heavy dose of foreshadowing for the Gophers, especially in the third quarter.

After Minnesota (1-5, 0-2 Big Ten) had cut the lead to 14-9 at halftime, Wisconsin scored on its first four second half possessions, all courtesy of White's speed and Clay's aggressiveness, and in a combined 40 carries between the two, they lost a grand total of one-yard rushing.

"That's not a recipe for success for your defense when you got two guys rushing for over 100 yards in a game," said Minnesota Coach Tim Brewster, who is 0-10 against ranked opponents. "You just got to make the plays; you got to stop the run. That's the basic premise on which we live by defensively, and we certainly didn't get the job done there in the third quarter."

A week after completing only 3-for-11 third downs offensively and allowing 9-for-18 third downs defensively, one of the many undoings, Wisconsin converted 7-for-9 on offense and held the Gophers to 3-for-13 overall. On Saturday, the longest third down UW faced was a third-and-9.

The big benefit of that was of Wisconsin's six scoring drives, five went for at least eight plays, chewing up over 23 minutes of game clock.

"That's how you win the games," Moffitt said, as UW's line didn't give up a sack. "That's the end goal, to score touchdowns. It's great to have a long drive, beat time off the clock and wear down the defense but at the end of the day, you've got to score points. That's how you beat these teams."

With Michigan State quieting the duo to a combined four catches for 45 yards, junior wide receiver Nick Toon led the team in catches (six for 52) while senior tight end Lance Kendricks led the team in yards (five catches for 75), showing how dangerous its offense can be when both can complement the run game.

"We definitely took some steps in the right direction," Toon said, "but we're not perfect yet."

Minnesota didn't provide much of a challenge in losing its seventh straight in college football's longest running series, a new record of futility. Gophers were penalized seven times for 54 and allowed Wisconsin to score 21 unanswered points to start the second half, turning a five-point hill to climb into a 26-point mountain.

"We did a lot of things in the first half to give us a chance," Brewster said. "The second half we obviously didn't get that done … our inability to tackle, our inability to shut down the run and out inability offensively to stay on the field … was the story of the game."

One of the many pitfalls Wisconsin had in East Lansing was failing to match Michigan State's intensity from the opening kickoff, recovering too late to right its wrongs. That wasn't a problem against the Gophers, and it was demonstrated right away.

Despite a breakdown in coverage that allowed a 34-yard pass play on Minnesota's opening drive, Wisconsin held Minnesota scoreless, stopping a Adam Weber scramble on fourth-and-six. Facing a rush defense that ranked 10th in the conference, giving up 185.6 yards per game, UW ran the ball six times for 37 yards, setting up Jared Abbrederis' three-yard touchdown grab.

It was a six-minute series that set the tone.

"It's a lot easier when you go up by a touchdown playing on defense, knowing you have a cushion like that, " said sophomore linebacker Mike Taylor, who finished with a team-high three tackles for loss. "You can play smarter, you are more focused in, so it's awesome to get that start."

As quick as UW started out of the gates, last week's problems started to reappear, proving that the ceiling has yet to be reached for the Badgers.

After Minnesota settled for a field goal on an 11-play, six minute drive, Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber went 3 of 3 on third down and completed a six-yard completion on fourth-and-four.

A MarQueis Gray touchdown coupled with a missed extra point made the lead 14-9 at halftime, a quarter in which Minnesota controlled the clock for control for 12 minutes, 17 seconds.

"It's frustrating to have an offense that you think can click and when you aren't allowed to get out there, it's difficult," Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema said.

In six games, Wisconsin is being outscored in the fourth quarter and its 34 points are the fewest of any quarter. In the final quarter, Wisconsin's defense allowed six players over 20 yards, four coming in the fourth quarter to allow the Gophers' stats to be more respectable.

"We definitely need to play better in the fourth quarter," junior defensive end J.J. Watt said. "We play good for three quarters, (but) we need to close out the game. Our defense needs to know that we can't give up plays like that in the fourth quarter, even when we have the game won handily."

That search of perfection will be the perfect motivating tool when Ohio State comes to town, a school Bielema has yet to defeat in his five years. In 2007, Wisconsin held a third-quarter lead against the No.1 team in the nation, only to have its run defense let them down. In 2008, blown coverage allowed Terrelle Pryor to scamper for the winning score under the Camp Randall lights. Last season, Wisconsin out gained Ohio State's offense, but two interceptions and a kickoff were returned for touchdowns.

Bielema said he and his team would have to deal with that disgust of losing again to the Buckeyes for another year. Wisconsin gets its chance to play its first complete 60 minutes against the team that requires its opponents to do just that in order to beat them.

"We've got a tremendous challenge," Bielema said. "Anytime you talk about Ohio State, they've been the premier of our conference the last several years and been able to win close games, especially against us. We have a tremendous amount of respect to what they do. It's a game for us and me personally of tremendous challenge."

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