Know your Foe: Minnesota

In preparation for Wisconsin's week eight matchup, resuming the oldest rivalry in Division 1 football against Minnesota, Badger Nation gets the insider scoop on this week's opponent from Fox Sports North beat writer Tyler Mason.

MADISON - Brought into restore a program run into the ground by former head coach Tim Brewster, Jerry Kill brought in the right resume and look needing to rebuild a program that hadn't won a bowl game since 2004, let alone appear in one since 2009.

Kill could be considered a journeyman of sorts, having coached from the NAIA to the Division II level, has been a head coach at Division II level for Saginaw Valley State in Michigan, Emporia State in Kansas, Southern Illinois, Webb City (Mo.) High School and Northern Illinois and coaches with the set of Midwest values that his players respond to. More importantly, he's known for rebuilding programs from the ground up.

So when the Gophers starting off the season undefeated, including a road win over UNLV and a home win over BCS Syracuse, expectations began growing that Minnesota was ahead of schedule. But after two losses to start conference plays, fans are preparing for a fourth straight losing season.

What is the mood of the team? How is Kill doing after another physical setback? What are the team's biggest concerns entering the longest rivalry in FBS football? To find out more, Badger Nation reached out to Fox Sports North beat reporter Tyler Mason to get some insight on the Golden Gophers.

Badger Nation: After the school's first 4-0 start since 2008, Minnesota has dropped its first two conference games. In your eyes, what has conference teams exposed on the Gophers?

MASON: The biggest thing the first two Big Ten games have exposed for the Gophers was just how soft their nonconference schedule was. Minnesota barely won on the road against UNLV to open the season, needing three overtimes to do so. The Gophers then routed New Hampshire, a Football Championship Subdivision team, in the home opener. After one-score wins over Western Michigan and Syracuse, Minnesota was flying high at 4-0. Then came the Big Ten, and the Gophers have lost two straight. Losses to Iowa and Northwestern have showed that perhaps Jerry Kill's team isn't as improved from last year as was originally thought.

Badger Nation: Minnesota scored 28 points or more in three of its four nonconference games, but has scored just 13 points in its two losses. What have conference teams done differently to defend its offense?

MASON: Minnesota's last two opponents have been able to win the turnover battle, something the Gophers' first four opponents couldn't do. The Gophers entered Big Ten play with a plus-5 turnover margin, tops in the conference through four games. But an opportunistic Hawkeyes defense capitalized on four Minnesota turnovers, including three interceptions by sophomore quarterback Max Shortell. One of those interceptions was returned for a game-sealing 68-yard touchdown. The Gophers' offense then turned the ball over three times against Northwestern (two fumbles and one interception) while Minnesota's defense couldn't force a Wildcats turnover. That's a grand total of seven turnovers in two Big Ten games for the Gophers after committing just five total in their first four games.

Badger Nation: Has the mood changed around the team over the past two weeks in your opinion?

MASON: While the Gophers may not admit it, the team's mood does seem to have shifted a bit now that Minnesota has lost two games. A few weeks ago, they were undefeated and two wins away from a bowl game. Now, they're on a two-game losing streak and needing to rebound against a Wisconsin team that has seemingly gained some traction after a slow start. Add in the uncertainty of the quarterback situation with the injury to MarQueis Gray, and the recent seizure of head coach Jerry Kill after Saturday's loss, and there's been an increasing amount of turmoil in Dinkytown.

Badger Nation: What is the short-term and long-term status of Jerry Kill, especially after suffering another seizure on Saturday?

MASON: The short-term status of Kill looks promising. A release sent out by the school said that the Gophers coach was released from the hospital on Sunday and was planning on returning to work Monday. After he suffered his well-publicized seizure on the sideline at the end of Minnesota's game against New Mexico State last year, Kill did not miss any games. Having suffered from a seizure disorder for years, small seizures are common for Kill. Had Saturday's seizure have happened at his home as opposed to the locker room at TCF Bank Stadium, it would not have made headlines.

As for the 51-year-old Kill's long-term status, it's unlikely that Saturday's seizure will change how Kill views his future as the head coach of the Gophers. After he returned to practice following his seizure last year, Kill said he couldn't afford to take several weeks off because the school hired him to turn a football program around.

Badger Nation: What's the status of MarQueis Gray's ankle, as he recovered from a high ankle sprain only to suffer a lower ankle sprain against Northwestern? If he can't play, who are the Gophers options?

MASON: Gray's status doesn't look good for Saturday's game after re-injuring his sprained ankle against Northwestern. Kill said Tuesday at his weekly press conference that Gray was still in a walking boot and has not yet been able to jog. Gray missed two games after suffering a high ankle sprain against Western Michigan and had a bye week to recover, but his latest injury has set him back to where he was during Minnesota's off week, Kill said. Without Gray, the quarterbacking duties fall to sophomore Max Shortell, who is 0-2 as a starter in Big Ten road games. Shortell threw three interceptions two games ago on the road against Iowa and will be thrown into another hostile environment at Camp Randall Stadium. If Shortell gets injured Saturday, Minnesota will need to have options to back him up. The Gophers have a pair of freshmen quarterbacks in Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner who could step in, but Minnesota doesn't want to burn either player's redshirt if at all possible. Freshman K.J. Maye, listed as an "athlete" on the roster, is a former high school quarterback and would likely get some snaps if Shortell had to miss a few plays.

Badger Nation: Northwestern's Venric Mark rushed for 182 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. Knowing that, how concerning is it that the Gophers now have to try to stop Montee Ball, who is coming off a career-best rushing performance against Purdue?

MASON: It should be very concerning for the Gophers defense that they have to face Montee Ball. In two Big Ten games, Minnesota's defense has given up 390 total yards against Iowa and Northwestern. It was Hawkeyes running back Mark Weisman racking up 177 rushing yards against the Gophers on Sept. 29 before Northwestern's Mark gained 182 yards one game later. Big rushing plays were killer for Minnesota's defense in both of those games — Weisman had back-to-back runs of 27 and 44 yards that set up an Iowa touchdown, and Mark had four runs of 25 yards or more on Saturday. If Ball has indeed returned to form like he showed against Purdue, it could be a long afternoon for Minnesota's defense as it tries to slow down Ball.

Badger Nation: Minnesota fumbled the ball seven times, losing two, and committed nine penalties. How surprising was that coming out of the bye week and have those been issues that have plagued this team throughout the year?

MASON: It was very surprising to see how sluggish and unprepared the Gophers looked against Northwestern, considering they had the previous week off. It was evident on the very first play of the game, as Lamonte Edwards fumbled the opening kickoff for one of the Gophers' seven fumbles of the day. Another of Minnesota's fumbles came on a miscommunication between center Zac Epping and quarterback MarQueis Gray, which led to a 17-yard loss. Prior to the Northwestern game, Minnesota had lost four fumbles in five games, but lost two against the Wildcats. Costly and poorly-timed penalties have been an issue for this Gophers squad all year and hurt them against Northwestern. The Wildcats gained three first downs via Minnesota penalties, while Minnesota also had a first down of its own negated by a penalty. Two Gophers turnovers cost them the game against Northwestern; if Minnesota can't hang onto the ball against the Badgers, it could cost the Gophers another game.

Badger Nation: Other than the run defense, what is the biggest area of concern for Minnesota in stopping Wisconsin on offense or defense?

MASON: As big of a concern as the Badgers' running game will be, Minnesota should be worried about getting its own running game going — especially if Gray can't play or is limited. With Gray sidelined against Iowa, Minnesota struggled to run the ball. Shortell led the team with 46 yards on 16 carries, while running back Donnell Kirkwood had just 33 yards on 12 touches. In order to help out the struggling passing game and keep Minnesota's offense balanced, Kirkwood will need to be able to pick up some yards on the ground. If Gray is good to go, his ability to run against the Gophers could be an advantage. Wisconsin's defense allowed Nebraska's Taylor Martinez to run for 107 yards and a touchdown in the Cornhuskers' win last month. Gray is certainly capable of putting up similar numbers.

Badger Nation: Where do you think Minnesota has the advantage in this matchup, either by player or position? Who are some players to watch for?

MASON: While the Badgers seem to have found the answer at quarterback in redshirt freshman Joel Stave, Wisconsin is still a middle-of-the-road passing offense. On the flip side, Minnesota's passing defense has been perhaps its best unit this season. The Gophers have allowed just 162.5 yards per game through the air, second-fewest in the Big Ten. They've also intercepted seven passes in six games and have registered 11 sacks. Stave put up big numbers against Illinois and had a quieter game against Purdue as Wisconsin's running game carried the load. Minnesota may have a tough time stopping the Badgers running game, but the Gophers match up well against the pass. Safety Derrick Wells has been perhaps Minnesota's best player on defense, recording two interceptions and seven pass breakups. Meanwhile, defensive end D.L. Wilhite has a team-high 4.5 sacks, third-most in the Big Ten, as well as 6.5 tackles for loss.

Badger Nation: What is the key to this game for Minnesota?

MASON: The key to this game for Minnesota will be to minimize the mental mistakes and turnovers. The Gophers can't afford to shoot themselves in the foot with ill-timed penalties, especially on the road. Camp Randall Stadium can be a tough and noisy place to play for visiting teams, so getting in a rhythm early and quieting the crowd will be important for Minnesota, especially on offense.

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