Game Day Grades: Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS – Working on getting his football team back to playing solid football, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has no problem saying the Badgers are stronger today than they were four weeks ago or even one week ago. After destroying Minnesota, it looks like Wisconsin is back on the uptick. Badger Nation publisher Benjamin Worgull grades the Badgers.

Quarterbacks

Tuned into the game and always thinking a step ahead, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema had no idea that Russell Wilson opened the game with 16 consecutive completions. Was he surprised?

"Anything that Russell does doesn't surprise me," Bielema said.

Wilson took full advantage of when Minnesota threw a corner blitz at him, a similar blitz the Gophers used to turn the momentum over their win over Iowa two weeks ago. The Gophers threw the blitz in the red zone on the first drive, and Wilson lofted a touchdown to a wide open Montee Ball to start the touchdown parade.

That capped a 6-of-6 opening drive for Wilson, and he was just getting in a groove, completing 16 straight passes and finished 16-of-17 for 178 yards and four touchdowns. In 10 games this season, Wilson has only four turnovers.

"Guys were making some great plays and the offensive line did a great job giving me enough time for me to throw the ball to the right guy at the right time," Wilson said.

With his four touchdown passes, Wilson has 25 on the season, breaking the single-season school record and is just the fifth BCS quarterback in history to pass for 100 career touchdowns. If he throws a touchdown pass in his next three games, he'll set a new NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass.

"We're playing very well on offense and (it's) because of the options Russell gives," Bielema said. "I have seen this kid practice every day. He's become more familiar with our locker room and when everything's clicking, it's hard to defend."

Grade: A+

Running Backs

If Bielema really wants to keep Ball from heading to the NFL, he better stop giving him the football. After all, it seems all Ball does is score touchdowns. Setting a new Big Ten and school record after his three scores gave him 27 for the season, Ball eclipsed 100 yards for the sixth time of the season after rushing for 166 yards.

Ball had 13 carries of at least five yards and averaged 7.2 yards per carry. As a result, Ball is averaging 147 yards in Big Ten play.

"Montee is just a consistent guy. He's very consistent in what he does," Bielema said. "I keep telling him he could probably be better next year."

If Ball chooses to go to the next level, Wisconsin has to feel confident with what James White could add to the offensive production. White got his usual 10-15 carries and made the most of it with 87 rushing yards, including one rush of 19.

"James practiced really good this week and I felt coming in that he might have a big game," Bielema said.

Grade: A

Receivers

For whatever reason, the ball hadn't gone in the direction of senior wide receiver Nick Toon. Instead of gripping publically, Toon maintained that he had to make sure he made the plays that came to him.

"You are always happy as a receiver when you are catching the ball," Toon said. "It just so happened that the ball were coming my way today. I made a play on all the balls I could."

Toon registered a career-high eight receptions and tied a career high with a pair of touchdown catches, his third multiple-score game of the season, to give him a team-best eight touchdowns on the season. Toon was involved early and often, taking advantage of smaller, inexperienced cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage. Toon had three catches in the first two quarters and was targeted on consecutive passes on two different occasions.

The only mistake was Toon unable to bring in a deep pass over the middle, the only incompletion of the day.

"You can't be perfect," Toon said. "Obviously, the team had success, playing well and came out with the win."

Added Bielema: "Nick's been coming back slowly since that little couple of weeks he was off and finally feeling healthy. Russell and him have a special connection. It's neat. I would have loved to see him come up that catch just because for Nick. Obviously I wanted to change the field position, but it would have been a big play."

Sophomore tight end Jacob Pedersen had his eighth touchdown reception for the season, tying him with Toon for the team lead, when he caught a 3-yard strike in the third quarter, and the Badgers got offense from Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Duckworth and Bradie Ewing.

Grade: A

Offensive Linemen

In Wisconsin's last two road games, the Badgers fast first-half start was met with a slow conclusion to the first 30 minutes, resulting in Wisconsin getting put behind the 8-ball in the second half. No such problems this road game, as Wisconsin racked up 232 yards, an 8.8 yards per play average and four touchdowns on five first half drives.

"We wanted to make sure we started fast because it's a hostile environment and it's a rivalry game," senior lineman Kevin Zeitler said. "Everything was just working. Everybody was on."

The running game was stellar with 283 rushing yards and a 6.3 average and the protection was solid after the first drive yielded two sacks. Center Peter Konz had the roughest day, being whistled for a holding penalty that caused Barry Alvarez to yell ‘that's not a hold!' from his athletic director's suite.

Konz also dislocated his ankle in the fourth quarter and will likely miss the rest of the regular season, meaning sophomore lineman Ryan Groy will be under center for Illinois and Penn State.

"He's got the full week to get ready," Zeitler said of Groy. "I've got confidence that he'll be able to get it done."

Grade: A

Defensive Linemen

Defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge's message when Wisconsin plays athletic, duel-threat quarterbacks is to keep the QB inside and in front. The Badgers did that for the most part, and it was a big reason MarQueis Gray finished with 68 rushing yards.

"When he had his most success was when he was able to get outside the pocket," senior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. "We didn't exactly do our job there but sometimes when you try to get pressure, those kinds of things happen."

Gray got loose a few times but the goal of the defense was to not give up the big play. With Gray having the team's longest play at just 13 yards, the Badgers' defensive line did its job, which was why the unit didn't allow a single point.

"It was huge," Butrym said. "Not technically a shutout, but the interception was so big because it was at a point in the game where they started getting a little momentum right before half. We were able to take it down and score."

Louis Nzegwu had three tackles, Jordan Kohout had three tackles and a half TFL and Minnesota native Beau Allen had two tackles and the only sack of the game in his first game in his home town.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Mike Taylor finished with a game-high 13 tackles, his fifth double-digit tackle game of the season. He tried a little too hard to get No.14, as he hit Gray when the quarterback was clearly going out of bounds and drew a 15-yard penalty. Not smart football.

Still, Taylor battled back from an early-game injury and now tied for seventh in the nation with 108 tackles, one of just 16 players in the country with 100 or more tackles. Another player on that list - Chris Borland, as his seven tackles and one TFL put him at 102 for the season, a tie for 12th.

There's not a better one-two punch in the conference.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Wisconsin handled the passing game, stopped the trick plays and defended a lot of plays that made it almost impossible for Minnesota to complete anything, which was why the Gophers finished with just 51 passing yards.

"It helps us tremendously in the long run," said senior safety Aaron Henry. "At the end of the day, it's really not about statistics to us as a defense. We just want to go out there, play extremely well and allow our offense to go out there and make plays."

Senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus came back from a bad special teams play to make a key interception on a badly thrown pass that helped swing the momentum. Had that pass been thrown well, Minnesota possibly scores a touchdown and cuts the lead to 21-13.

"Coach (DeMontie) Cross was stressing on the sidelines that we need takeaways, we need to help the offense get the ball to put points on the board," Fenelus said. "It was a great feeling to make up for it."

Grade: A

Special Teams

The word to describe Wisconsin's special teams right now is ‘Ugh.' If it's not one thing, it's something else, or in this case two things. The first was Antonio Fenelus whiffing on a tackle attempt against the kicker, allowing a 5-yard touchdown run on a fake field goal.

"If I had to run the same play again, I would put Antonio one-on-one on the kicker every time," Bielema said.

Fenelus said the Badgers knew the Gophers were going to run some trick plays and that he was prepared for it, but just missed the kicker.

The other foul was the Badgers suddenly porous kickoff return unit. After allowing a 45-yard return on the first run, Wisconsin allowed Duane Bennett to take the opening kickoff of the second half 96 yards for the touchdown. Bielema said they did a frontside and backside personnel grouping and committed to another two periods of practice to it.

"It looked we did fairly well beside the first one and that (second half) one," Bielema said.

The battle now is finding the consistency. If not, Wisconsin would be better off just kicking the ball out of bounds.

If it wasn't for Brad Nortman and the protection unit having a good day, knocking two punts inside the 20, this grade would be an F.

Grade: D


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