South Dakota – a school that is transitioning to Division I - will serve as UW's final non-conference tune-up this season, and while the Coyotes don't have the same talent as Wisconsin, they have plenty of experience. South Dakota returns 18 starters from last year's 4-7 squad, and one of those wins was a 41-38 victory over Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
That victory was accomplished by quarterback Dante Warren picking apart the Gophers' secondary to the tune of 352 passing yards on 21 of 30 completions and three touchdowns, and running for 81 yards and two more scores. Warren was a junior then, and he returns this season with a full arsenal at his disposal.
Warren was sharp in the spring game, going 12-of-14 for 124 yards, having at least three wide receivers catch three passes and had plenty of time to operate with four returning offensive linemen in front of him.
"To me the key right now is how well we're playing right now offensively -- and on the offensive line. That is important," South Dakota head coach Ed Meierkort said. "We know what Dante can do.
"It puts trust in your other players who are taking a ton of reps. I thought we were able to develop some great offensive line and defensive line depth."
This test won't just be of the Badgers' defense. Wisconsin's offense will be going against a unit that returns 10 of 11 starters, including senior linebacker Shea Williams (team-best 89 tackles and 6.5 TFLs) and Aaron Broder (third on the team with 75 tackles). The secondary, despite the last line of defense allowing 396.9 yards per game last season, has senior Shane Potter and sophomore Aaron Swift returning as the team's second- and fourth-leading tacklers, respectfully.
"With the amount of veterans we return we are able to fine-tune what we do," Meierkort said. "Our emphasis on mental conditioning is paying off. We're very confident that their efforts this spring will turn into wins this fall."
Let's not forget about the special teams, either, as senior Jeremy Blount has the speed and the wherewithal to give Wisconsin's sometimes suspect units some problems. Last season, Blount averaged 16.7 yards on 12 punt returns, averaged 21.4 yards on 29 kick returns and posted more than 200 all-purpose yards twice, finishing first, second and sixth in his conference in those categories, respectively.
In addition to Warren torching their secondary, the Gophers lost by their inability to convert on their opportunities. The Gophers turned the ball over twice in the first half, on a failed fourth down at the South Dakota 30 and a fumble by Adam Weber at the Coyotes 30 in the closing seconds, missed a 48-yard field goal, settled for a field goal at first and goal and lost another fumble in the fourth quarter when Weber refusing to take the safe route by sliding.
On paper, this looks like the toughest non-conference test for Wisconsin. Let's hope the Badgers approach it that way, even though there is a sizeable talent gap between Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Overall Record: First Meeting