BadgerNation: What did you see against Illinois that you hadn’t seen in the last month of Minnesota football?
Ryan Burns: To be honest, not a whole lot changed from the way Minnesota had been playing, but the one thing that improved was its safety play. The Gophers had chances to beat both Michigan and Iowa but struggled at safety where walk-on Kunle Ayinde had been filling in for an injured Damarius Travis. Ayinde has just been worn down and missed some plays against both teams that cost the Gophers in key spots, but sophomore Duke McGhee was the one who got the start against Illinois and played the best game of his career. He was all over the field and led the Gophers in tackles. If that's the McGhee that shows up against Wisconsin, the Gophers defense will be in for a good day
BN: Minnesota’s six defeats this year have come to teams with a combined 53-13 record (Nebraska has 6 of 13 losses). Is there 5-6 record a product of their tough schedule or a program that’s struggling?
RB: I've been talking about this on GopherDigest for weeks now, but the Gophers schedule compared to their two rivals in Wisconsin and Iowa has been insane. Minnesota's cross-over games were against Ohio State and Michigan, while the Hawkeyes got Indiana and Maryland and the Badgers played Maryland and Rutgers. Minnesota has also had its worst injury year in probably the last decade. They've lost four of their top seven defensive backs for the year, been playing without their starting defensive tackles for three weeks and their offensive line are all playing with injuries. Minnesota has two walk-ons in the two deep on the offensive line because of it, much like Wisconsin.
The Gophers had chances to beat Michigan and Iowa, but I don't believe this a program that's struggling or regressing. It’s more that they've seen an extremely tough schedule and had an awful year with injuries. Next year Minnesota loses TCU, Ohio State and Michigan on the schedule and gains Oregon State, Maryland and Rutgers, so I expect them to rebound next season.
BN: Where has Mitch Leidner thrived and where has he faltered for Minnesota under center?
RB: Leidner has thrived his recent weeks with simpler reads and a better offensive line protecting him. In the Gophers last three games against Ohio State, Iowa and Illinois, Leidner has only been sacked twice, so with a clean pocket, he's been able to get the ball out to his two favorite targets in WR KJ Maye and TE Brandon Lingen. The routes he's been throwing as well have been easier, going on the shorter side compared to early in the season when he was throwing a lot of corner routes. Where he's faltered is on some of his reads on Minnesota's read option or not stepping into his throws, causing inaccurate passes. His reads have been better of late, but he's still throwing off his back foot at times, which gets him in trouble.
BN: Has Shannon Brooks taken over the lead tailback role? What are his strengths and how will be test a Wisconsin defense tough against the run?
RB: Brooks is now the lead back, but some of that is because Rodney Smith has been battling an ankle injury and hasn't been able to go. Brooks has been running the ball extremely well of late. Coming off being named Big Ten freshman of the week for the third time this year, I'm very interested to see how he does against a stout Wisconsin defense. What makes him special is his vision, speed and aggressive running style. Brooks does well reading his blocks, knowing where they are and where they're going to be. Plus once he gets to the second level, he's got the burst to break it to the house, as he'd showed last week on a 75-yard touchdown run. He's also one of the most physical backs I've seen in a while, as Brooks loves to go into contact and not shy away from it. I think he'll be one of the better running backs that Wisconsin will see all year and the match-up of Minnesota's OL/TE's vs. Wisconsin's front seven will be one to watch on Saturday.
BN: What has been the biggest thing holding Minnesota’s defense back from being a top unit?
RB: Injuries. The only time that Minnesota was fully healthy in the defensive back field was against TCU, and they held the Horned Frogs to their lowest point total of the year. Starting safety Damarius Travis tore his hamstring on the final play of the game and has been out since. His back-up Ace Rogers torn his ACL during Minnesota's third game of the season, so they've relying on walk-on Kunle Ayinde up until recently. Minnesota's nickel corner Jalen Myrick, who Pro Football Focus had as one of the top corners in the nation punctured his lung against Ohio State and is out for the season. His back-up Craig James broke his leg against Northwestern as well. All Big-Ten corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun has been playing through a knee injury all season as well. With all these injuries, Minnesota's got two true freshmen playing a lot of downs right now and they just haven't been the same because of all these injuries. The lack of pass rush has also killed them as quarterbacks have all day to have their receivers.
BN: Why is Tracy Claeys the right coach for the future of Minnesota football?
RB: Claeys is the guy for Minnesota because he brings stability to program that's been on a positive incline since Jerry Kill took over. With the amount of turnover that's going to happen among FBS coaches this off-season, I think it was smart giving Claeys a contract extension that basically has him coaching for his job in 2016 with a new AD and low buyout. Regardless, I think he's one of the most knowledgeable football minds that the Gophers have had in a long time. His defenses speak for themselves, being some of the best the Gophers have had in decades. The offense has been a stark change from when Kill was coaching earlier in the year and has been so much more creative under Claeys, which is why they've had more success.
BN: It appears the mood in the postgame locker room following the Illinois win already had transitioned to Wisconsin and the axe. How would you describe the level of frustration for the program having lost 11 straight to their border rivals?
RB: The frustration level is probably at an all-time high with the lack of success against the Badgers. Both Minnesota players and Claeys said in the post-game press conference that while the win against Illinois was nice, they have to get that Axe. Every Gopher player and Minnesota fan is well aware that the Gophers haven't had the Axe since 2003 and that needs to change here soon. The Gophers had their chances last season at Camp Randall leading 17-3 in the second quarter but couldn't sustain that success.
BN: What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Minnesota trouble? Where do you think the Gophers have the edge over the Badgers?
RB: If Minnesota's starting defensive tackles are out again this week, I am nervous about the Badgers rushing attack, even though statistically Wisconsin is dead last in Big Ten play in rushing yards. I think the Gophers have been vulnerable up the middle with Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe out and the thought of getting Corey Clement going early up the middle gives me concern. I think Minnesota's offense will have some struggles against the Wisconsin defense initially, but that they'll find success as the day goes on. The Badger defense during Big Ten play on the road is averaging almost 20 points a game against them, and I don't anticipate that changing. I think the Gophers will find some success both through the air and on the ground.
BN: What is your prediction for Saturday?
RB: I expect TCF Bank Stadium to be full to capacity Saturday afternoon with probably 60/40 Minnesota fans, but it'll be spirited on both sides none the less. I understand that Wisconsin has eight wins on the year, but I also understand that the combined record of those eight opponents is 26-63. With a 5-6 Minnesota at home and only 2.5 point underdog, I think Vegas may agree with me that this is going to be a lot closer game than the records indicate. I think this is the year that the Axe finally makes its way back to Minneapolis to stay in a very close and contested game, capped off by a Ryan Santoso 44-yard field goal as time expires.
Minnesota 27, Wisconsin 24