MASON: This team has been incredibly resilient. They've now witnessed their coach have seizures on the sideline twice, with several other seizures occurring in the locker room during halftime or after games. Having been through it so many times, the players know how to respond, as does the coaching staff. These coaches have been together for a long time on Kill's staff -- nearly two decades, in some cases. That continuity has helped things move along smoothly even when Kill has been absent. At the same time, Minnesota's players have drawn inspiration from their coach, who already beat cancer and is determined to overcome his epilepsy, too. From a coaching standpoint, he showed at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois that he can turn programs around in three years, and he's done just that at Minnesota. Even if Kill isn't on the sideline during games (which he won't be this Saturday), his fingerprints are all over the program.
2, What has been the big turning point for the Gophers? Has it been rallying around Kill or is it something more than that?
MASON: I think the win at Northwestern was where this season turned around -- and it was partially a result of the Gophers rallying around their ailing head coach. Minnesota started 0-2 in Big Ten play but managed to top the Wildcats (who were ranked at the time) on the road for its first conference win. That was also the first game since Kill announced that he would be taking time to focus on his health, so there was a sense that his players were playing for him. Although Northwestern has taken a nose dive since then, Minnesota's win against the Wildcats really gave this team a newfound sense of confidence, which has only continued to grow with each win. Beating Nebraska for the first time in 50 years was also a big turning point, not only for this season but for the entire football program as a whole. It's a sign that things are finally changing in Minneapolis, and Kill has been the biggest reason for that.
3, Since Minnesota took the redshirt off Phillip Nelson in his start last season in Madison, how has the quarterback improved? What are his best strengths and weaknesses?
MASON: As Badgers fans remember, Nelson's debut last season at Camp Randall was a forgettable one for the then-freshman. He was thrown into the fire midway through the season and started the remainder of Minnesota's games. Since then, Nelson's decision making has improved drastically. He's no longer making the dangerous throws or mental mistakes. He had his best game two weeks ago, throwing for 298 yards and four touchdowns in Minnesota's road win over Indiana. Over the last four games (all of which are Gophers wins), Nelson has seven passing touchdowns and zero interceptions, as well as three rushing touchdowns. His ability to run remains a big strength; he's topped 40 rushing yards four times this year. Nelson has gotten better at throwing the deep ball, but still needs to put better touch on longer passes.
4, While he started slow, including back-to-back performances of 22 yards or less, tailback David Cobb has a four game streak of at least 100 yards. What has been the big reason for his stats increase?
MASON: Cobb's increased workload has been a byproduct of an injury to starting running back Donnell Kirkwood -- who seemed primed for a 1,000-yard season before the year started -- and off-the-field issues and an injury to backup Rodrick Williams Jr. Cobb entered fall camp as the No. 3 running back on the depth chart but has made the most of his opportunity. Coaches have always raved about his athleticism, but Cobb never really had a chance to prove it. He had just one carry as a sophomore a year ago and became a forgotten man. Cobb has had to earn his carries, though. He's become a more mature player and has earned the trust of his coaching staff. Both Kirkwood and Williams are stocky backs, while Cobb is a bit leaner and more athletic. He's been fun to watch this year, and the Gophers feel they finally have a go-to running back again.
5, The Gophers have scored on 97 percent of their trips inside the red zone (31-for-32) and scored touchdowns on 24 of those trips. What has been their secret?
MASON: There's not really any recipe as to why Minnesota has been so successful in the red zone. I think it's a combination of better play calling -- the coaches are putting quarterback Philip Nelson the best chance to succeed -- and an ever-growing confidence among the Gophers offense. They truly feel they can score when they smell the end zone. Nelson has also established a few go-to targets in the red zone in big 6-4, 254-pound tight end Maxx Williams and reliable wide receiver Derrick Engel (who may miss Saturday's game with a knee injury).
The Gophers' success on offense in the red zone has been matched by their defense's ability to stop opponents in the red zone as well. Minnesota's 96.9 percent scoring rate in the red zone is second in the Big Ten, while opponents have scored in the red zone just 75.7 percent of the time against the Gophers, which is best in the conference.
6,Theiren Cockran and Ra'shede Hageman provide a pretty good one-two tandem on Minnesota's defensive line, combining for 8.5 tackles for loss. How is the Gophers' defense schemed to allow those guys to make plays?
MASON: Hageman could thrive in pretty much any system. At 6-6, 311 pounds, he's an absolute monster on the defensive line. He's had success getting to the quarterback with a pair of sacks (and another negated by a penalty), but he also has 29 tackles and nine tackles for loss. The Gophers have also dropped Hageman back off the line at times, which has allowed him to make tackles on screen passes or, in Minnesota's win against Northwestern, an interception. Cockran has nearly half of the team's sacks (6.5) and has emerged as a legitimate pass rushing threat. Part of that is Hageman is getting double teamed more often than not, which has allowed other players the opportunity to do damage against single coverage. Cockran has been one of several benefactors of Hageman's play, as his stats (27 tackles, 9.0 TFL) indicate.
7, How much do you think the empty trophy case or Wisconsin's decade-long dominance in the series will be brought up this week?
MASON: Well, the trophy case is no longer empty after Minnesota topped Penn State two weekends ago to take home the Governor's Victory Bell. It's currently the only of the four rivalry trophies the Gophers possess. Of course, they haven't won Paul Bunyan's Axe since 2003. There have been several close games between the two rivals since then, but Wisconsin has had a stranglehold on the trophy. There's no doubt that these players value this rivalry game, especially those who grew up in Minnesota. But even those who come from other states have developed an appreciation for what the rivalry means not only to the team but to the entire state. Now, the Gophers believe they can be competitive with the Badgers as both teams enter this weekend's game with matching 8-2 records.
8, What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Minnesota trouble? Where do you think the Gophers have the edge over the Badgers?
MASON: There's no doubt that Wisconsin's running game could give the Gophers fits on Saturday. After all, the Badgers' running backs have had success against everyone this year, and Minnesota's rushing defense has been very average. The Gophers fully know that the Badgers plan to run the ball down their throats, but that won't make it any easier to stop.
As for where Minnesota has the edge, the Gophers could easily best the Badgers in special teams. Punter Peter Mortell is one of the best punters in the Big Ten and helped Minnesota win the field position battle against Penn State. Meanwhile, kicker Chris Hawthorne has settled down after a shaky nonconference season and has connected on 80 percent of his field goals (12 of 15). Wisconsin's special teams have been one of the Badgers' few weak spots. Special teams often go overlooked.
9, What is the one thing Minnesota needs to do well in order to win Saturday?
MASON: Stop the run -- or at least limit it. Of course, that's much easier said than done. But if the Gophers can at least limit the damage that James White and Melvin Gordon can cause, they'll have a chance. Minnesota can't give up big gains, either, like the 93-yard touchdown that White had last weekend against Indiana. The Gophers have allowed 180 rushing yards or more in each of their last three games but managed to win all three. If Wisconsin puts up bigger numbers than that -- which it's certainly capable of -- Minnesota's defense will be in for a long day.
10, What's your unbiased prediction for the game?
MASON: I never expected the Gophers to be at 8-2 entering this game, but consider me one of the many who have been surprised by their season. However, I see Minnesota's four-game winning streak ending this Saturday. While the point spread has Wisconsin favored by more than two touchdowns, I think the Gophers will keep it close. I'll say the Badgers win 35-24, with Minnesota beating the spread.