1, How high is the confidence in the Wisconsin after going 2-0 in trophy games and winning in Lincoln for the first time in 54 years?
MASON: Confidence is sky high in Dinkytown. There's a generation of Gophers fans who haven't seen this program have this type of success in their lifetimes. In fact, some fans are saying that Saturday's game against Wisconsin will be the biggest EVER in Gophers history. That confidence has slowly been building over the last few years, and now it's reached a pinnacle. Minnesota was an underdog on the road at Michigan and came away with a win, and the Gophers won in Lincoln despite being double-digit underdogs. As others continue to doubt Minnesota, Jerry Kill and his team have faith in themselves. That confidence was evident after the Gophers' loss to Ohio State when linebacker De'Vondre Campbell said that Minnesota would face the Buckeyes again in three weeks (meaning the Big Ten championship game). While the statement was perhaps a bit brash following a loss, that's truly how confident the Gophers are in themselves. In my four years of covering the team, I haven't seen this team's confidence any higher than it is heading into this weekend. They're filling up their trophy case, but they have a spot for one more.
2, What has been the turning point for this program this year under Jerry Kill?
MASON: To be honest, I'm not sure the biggest turning point for Minnesota happened this year. Looking back at last season, the Gophers had a handful of big wins that helped catapult them into 2014 and boosted the players' confidence. Beating Nebraska last year was huge, as was the win over Penn State. Those both came during a four-game winning streak during which the confidence continued to grow. Minnesota carried that into this season and things have only gotten better for the program. Beating Michigan on the road may have been one of the bigger moments this year, even though we've come to find out that the Wolverines are more or less in shambles this year. Beating Iowa to win another trophy was huge, and the road win against Nebraska was big. If I had to pick just one turning point this year it would be that win in Ann Arbor. But truly, that four-game stretch last season -- which included Kill dealing with health issues -- really helped mold this team into the confident group that it is now.
3, Minnesota and Wisconsin have the fifth and sixth-worst passing offense in the country, respectively. The Badgers are winning mainly because of Melvin Gordon with help from their defense. How are the Gophers doing it??
MASON: Minnesota is using a very similar strategy to Wisconsin, oddly enough. Offensively, senior running back David Cobb -- who was dinged up in the win against Nebraska -- has been the MVP. He's just a few yards shy of tying the Gophers' single-season rushing record. On any given day, Minnesota knows it can rely on Cobb to help move the chains, even when the passing game is struggling. And the defense has really become the calling card of this team. While Minnesota's defense hasn't been quite as stout as Wisconsin's has, the Gophers rank fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (22.5 ppg) and second in the conference in turnover margin (+11).
The latter of those two stats has been crucial. Minnesota has done a good job -- save for a Cobb fumble against Illinois -- of not committing turnovers at crucial moments in games. On top of that, Minnesota's defense has come up with 13 interceptions, led by cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who has had a breakout year as a redshirt junior. When Minnesota has had to make plays through the air, tight end Maxx Williams has been hard for opposing defenses to stop. The 6-4, 250-pound redshirt sophomore is a nightmare to match up against and has emerged as one of the top tight ends in the country. Not bad for a sophomore.
4, What has Minnesota found in quarterback Mitch Leidner, who rushed for 110 yards and two scores in Nebraska?
MASON: I'm not sure Minnesota knows exactly what it has with Leidner. While he's shown the ability to run -- he had 407 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns as a freshman last year -- his accuracy remains a work in progress. Entering Saturday's game, Leidner has completed just 51.1 percent of his passes this year. That puts him 118th out of 124 FBS quarterbacks in terms of completion percentage. Leidner will never be the type of quarterback to routinely throw for 250 to 300 yards in a game, and with the way Minnesota's offense is set up, he doesn't have to be. But in order for the Gophers' offense to truly take the next step, much rests on the right arm of Leidner. He's still shown a tendency to force throws into coverage at times and he continues to miss open receivers. At 6-4, 237 pounds, Leidner will continue to be a threat to run. Minnesota needs him to be a threat to pass, too.
5, Even though he says he’ll play, how does Minnesota’s offense change if tailback David Cobb can’t play or is limited?
MASON: I think it changes quite a bit, even if Jerry Kill insisted Tuesday that nothing changes without Cobb in the backfield. Cobb's backups -- Roderick Williams, Donnell Kirkwood and Berkley Edwards -- saw some action in the Nebraska win, and Williams did have a 19-yard touchdown run. Both Williams and Kirkwood were starters at one point last year before Cobb emerged as the starting running back for the remainder of the season. But neither had the type of success as starters that Cobb has had the past two seasons.
I'd anticipate all three backs getting a handful of carries Saturday if Cobb doesn't play (or even if he's limited). Edwards is the most intriguing of the backups. The younger brother of former NFL wide receiver Braylon Edwards, Berkley (who is questionable for Saturday's game) possesses game-changing speed. We haven't seen him show it off much in games this year, but he has only had 30 carries. One of those was a 42-yard touchdown run in his first college game back in late August. If Minnesota can find some ways to get Edwards the ball with room to run -- whether it's on a jet sweep or a screen pass -- that would certainly change the dynamic of the Gophers' running game. Otherwise, if Cobb's backs struggle to produce yardage, Leidner will need to make some plays both with his arm and with his legs. Leidner did a nice job running the ball against Nebraska, and a decent amount of that was after Cobb was sidelined.
We'll be playing the guessing game this week as to whether or not Cobb plays. Don't expect Kill to tip his hand one way or the other. He said Tuesday that Cobb was "very questionable" for Saturday, but college coaches love to be cryptic with that type of stuff. Kirkwood was asked about Cobb and whether he thinks the Gophers' workhorse running back will play against Wisconsin. Kirkwood's answer? He expects Cobb to suit up on Saturday.
6, Minnesota is second in the Big Ten with a plus-11 turnover margin. What have the Gophers been doing this year that have turned them into ball hawks?
MASON: This secondary has gotten better every year during Kill's tenure, and defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel deserves a lot of the credit. The cornerbacks and safeties rarely seem to be in the wrong spot and don't often get turned around in the secondary. I mentioned Boddy-Calhoun earlier, and his four interceptions are tops on the Gophers. He entered the season overshadowed by Eric Murray, who is arguably Minnesota's best shutdown corner. Murray has had a good year, but the stats don't necessarily indicate that he's been their best coverage man. He only has one interception, but he has added seven pass break-ups. The Gophers' secondary plays aggressive and has been able to get good reads against opposing quarterbacks. Safeties Cedric Thompson, Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis have all been solid, too, and Thompson has taken over the role of captain in the secondary after safety Brock Vereen graduated and was drafted by the Chicago Bears.
Perhaps more impressive than the 13 interceptions is the 14 fumbles recovered by Minnesota's defense, second-most in the Big Ten. The Gophers have made a conscious effort to try to either punch the football loose or get a helmet on the ball. Minnesota's linebackers have been particularly successful in forcing and recovering fumbles. Campbell leads the team with three fumble recoveries, while fellow linebacker Damien Wilson has recovered two. Thompson, Boddy-Calhoun and linebacker Jack Lynn have all forced a pair of fumbles. Wisconsin has had some recent fumble issues. If that rears its ugly head against the Gophers, the Badgers could be in trouble.
7, Who have been the key players on Minnesota’s defense?
MASON: I've mentioned a few of them already in answers to previous questions. Boddy-Calhoun has seemingly made big play after big play this year, whether it's forcing a fumble, intercepting a pass or getting his hand on the ball. Murray is another key in that secondary. He's often matched up against opposing teams' top receivers, and he's thrived in that role. Meanwhile, linebacker Damien Wilson is a tackling machine. His 103 tackles this season are 45 more than the second-highest on the team (De'Vondre Campbell). Wilson has a nose for the football and has been huge against the run game. He's also gotten to the quarterback four times this year, and his 10 tackles for loss lead the Gophers. (Side note: Wilson and Cobb are cousins, and each has arguably been the best player on his respective side of the ball this year for Minnesota.) The Gophers lost a stud on the defensive line from last year in Ra'shede Hageman, but senior Cameron Bottticelli and true freshman Steven Richardson have led the way on the line in 2014.
8, How do you think the Gophers will approach trying to stop Melvin Gordon with their personnel, and do you see it working?
MASON: As we've seen, Gordon seems to have more success running outside the tackles than he does in the middle of the field. Minnesota will have plenty of game film to study and should be taking note of that. It'll be up to the Gophers' speedy cornerbacks to not only chase him down on the edges but also to tackle well. Tackling hasn't particularly been a problem for Minnesota's defense this year, but it will be essential on Saturday against Gordon. Look for the safeties to help out in the run game, too, especially since Wisconsin doesn't have much of a passing threat to speak of. Then again, few teams have crafted a great recipe for slowing down Gordon. We'll see if Minnesota can finally figure out what it takes to limit his yardage. The Gophers did bottle him up last year as Gordon got just 69 yards on 12 carries. But he was splitting carries with James White a year ago. Now Gordon will be the No. 1 focal point for Minnesota's defense.
9, Where do you think the Gophers have the edge over the Badgers?
MASON: I know it sounds silly, but we can't overlook the punting game. Minnesota has one of the Big Ten's best punters in Peter Mortell, who has averaged a conference best 44.8 yards per punt. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has had its issues punting the football -- and has even used a backup quarterback a few times. Badgers punter Drew Meyer has averaged just 37.0 yards per punt. The field position battle could be a big factor in determining Saturday's winner.
I also think Minnesota's secondary has the edge over Wisconsin. Not only are the Gophers' cornerbacks better than the Badgers' receivers, but I'd say Minnesota's secondary is better than Wisconsin's secondary -- even though UW's pass defense ranks higher than the Gophers. Guys like Murray, Boddy-Calhoun, Thompson and even speedy cornerback Jalen Myrick have all had great seasons for Minnesota. I'd anticipate that group will give Wisconsin's offense a harder time in the passing game than the Badgers' defense does against Leidner and Co.
10, What is the one thing Minnesota needs to do well in order to win Saturday? Prediction?
MASON: Win the turnover battle -- or limit turnovers altogether. The Gophers are 3-0 this year and 11-0 under Kill when they don't turn the ball over at all. When Minnesota commits fewer turnovers than its opponent, it is 7-1 this year and 19-2 under Kill. Continuing that trend, the Gophers are just 2-16 in the last four years when they commit more turnovers. You get the point. Anyway, ball security is always important, but especially in a hostile road environment. Minnesota has done a great job of forcing turnovers this year. If the Gophers' defense can force Wisconsin to cough the ball up a few times, Minnesota could put itself in position to win.
However, despite everything we've just talked about, I still see this one going Wisconsin's way -- although it'll be closer than any border battle we've had in recent years. Prediction: Badgers 31, Gophers 28.