Wisconsin-Minnesota Preview

The Badgers and Gophers battle for the Paul Bunyan Axe at 11 a.m. Saturday

Buckeyes offense v

Gophers offense v. Badgers defense

Minnesota projected startersWisconsin projected starters
QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq (Sr. 6-1, 215) DE Darius Jones (Jr. 6-3, 268)
WR Aaron Hosack (Sr. 6-5, 210) DT Anttaj Hawthorne (Jr. 6-3, 300)
WR Tony Patterson (Sr. 6-2, 205)DT Jason Jefferson (Jr. 6-3, 307)
WR Jared Ellerson (So. 6-1, 195) DE Jonathan Welsh (Jr. 6-4, 228)
RB Marion Barber III (So. 5-11, 210) LB LaMarr Watkins (So. 6-1, 216),
LT Rian Melander (Jr. 6-7, 295) LB Jeff Mack (Sr. 6-0, 244)
LG Mark Setterstrom (So. 6-3, 290) LB Alex Lewis (Sr. 6-1, 237)
C Greg Eslinger (So. 6-3, 280) CB Scott Starks (Jr. 5-10, 168)
RG Joe Quinn (Sr. 6-4, 285) SS Ryan Aiello (Sr. 6-1, 196)
RT Joe Ainslie (So. 6-7, 305) FS Jim Leonhard (Jr. 5-8, 183)
TE Ben Utecht (Sr. 6-6, 250) CB Levonne Rowan (So. 6-1, 178)

Key reserves

Minnesota: RB Laurence Maroney (Fr. 5-11, 200), FB/RB Thomas Tapeh (Sr. 6-1, 230), RB Terry Jackson II (Jr. 5-11, 190), TE Matt Spaeth (Fr. 6-6, 265), FB Brandon Hagen (Fr. 5-10, 195).

Wisconsin: LB Kareem Timbers (Jr. 6-3, 209), DT/DE Nick Cochart (Sr. 6-1, 267), DT Kalvin Barrett (Jr. 6-2, 316), CB Chuckie Cowans (Jr. 5-8, 169), WR/CB Brandon Williams (So. 5-11, 170), LB Chris Catalano (Jr. 6-1, 206), LB Elliot Goode (So. 6-2, 240), LB Kyle McCorison (Sr. 6-0, 242).

When the Gophers have the ball…

Of all the teams in the nation perhaps only Texas Tech and Oklahoma possess a more fearsome offense than Minnesota. The Gophers are second in the nation in rushing, averaging 300.7 yards per contest (Navy averages 309.6). In Asad Abdul-Khaliq, Minnesota has the most efficient (176.25 rating) quarterback in the nation. As a team they have scored more touchdowns (56) than anyone, almost twice as many as Wisconsin (29). The offensive line has allowed just 11 sacks all season. There has been all sorts of boom and no bust: Minnesota has turned the ball over only 11 times, third fewest in the Big Ten. Only once have the Gophers scored fewer than 35 points: a 20-point output in a win over Penn State. This is the kind of ever-dangerous offense that teams dream of possessing.

The headlines, for good reason, go to the team's amazing group of running backs. Fullback/running back Thomas Tapeh and running back Terry Jackson are veterans who ran for 2,223 yards combined last season. Tapeh (457 yards rushing) and Jackson (256), though, have been supplanted by sophomore Marion Barber III and freshman Laurence Maroney as the team's lead horses. Barber has run for 995 yards and 16 touchdowns, a year after taking a medical redshirt for a hamstring injury. His 6.1 yards per carry, though, is dwarfed by Maroney, who is averaging 7.3 (786 yards on 108 carries) and has scored eight touchdowns. Minnesota has recorded a mind-boggling 36 rushing touchdowns.

Then there is Abdul-Khaliq, the best quarterback in a conference full of astute signal-callers. Abdul-Khaliq has thrown for 1,775 yards, 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He is also dangerous on the ground, having picked up 296 yards and three touchdowns rushing. The Gophers enjoy the luxury of not needing to pass often, but Abdul-Khaliq averages 15.7 yards per completion.

The team's receivers do not get a lot of publicity, but are more than capable. Aaron Hosack (32 catches, 530 yards, eight touchdowns) and Jared Ellerson (31, 682, five) are the focal points; Ellerson has also run the ball 13 times this season. Ben Utecht has been little used but is still the best all-around tight end in the nation.

Minnesota will also pull some tricks out of the bag. In addition to reverses, both Barber and Tapeh have each thrown and completed a pass this season.

Wisconsin's defense has had moments of excellence this season and will need to bring its best game start to finish to so much as contain the Gophers. One of Minnesota's greatest strengths is how fresh it can keep its talented running back corps; it will be interesting to see what, if anything, Wisconsin does differently to keep its defense from wearing down.

Badgers offense v. Gophers defense

Wisconsin projected startersMinnesota projected starters
QB Jim Sorgi (Sr. 6-5, 190) DE Mark Losli (So. 6-6, 275)
TB Dwayne Smith (So. 5-11, 225)DT Anthony Montgomery (So. 6-5, 315)
FB Matt Bernstein (So. 6-2, 273) DT Darrell Reid (Jr. 6-2, 270)
WR Lee Evans (Sr. 5-11, 202) DE Eric Clark (Fr. 6-4, 240)
WR B. Williams (So. 5-11, 170) LB Kyle McKenzie (So. 6-1, 230)
LT Morgan Davis (Jr. 6-5, 326) LB Ben West (Sr. 6-2, 240)
LG Dan Buenning (Jr. 6-4, 298) LB Terrance Campbell (So. 6-2, 200)
C Donovan Raiola (So. 6-3, 290) CB Ukee Dozier (Jr. 6-1, 180)
RG J. Clinkscale (Jr. 6-3, 308) S Justin Isom (Sr. 5-8, 185)
RT Mike Lorenz (So. 6-5, 313) S Eli Ward (Sr. 6-0, 215)
TE Tony Paciotti (Jr. 6-4, 263) CB Trumaine Banks (Fr. 5-10, 190)

Key reserves

Wisconsin: TB Booker Stanley (Fr. 5-10, 207), WR/TE Owen Daniels (So. 6-3, 213), WR Jonathan Orr (So. 6-3, 190), WR Darrin Charles (Jr. 6-6, 210), TE Jason Pociask (So. 6-3, 250), WR Ernest Mason (Fr. 5-11, 180), WR Brandon White (So. 6-3, 182), OT/TE Joe Thomas (Fr. 6-8, 280), QB Matt Schabert (Jr. 6-2, 203).

Minnesota: S Justin Fraley (Jr. 6-0, 205), DT Dan Kwapinski (Sr. 6-5, 275), LB Dominique Sims (Jr. 6-1, 230), DE Paul Nixon (Sr. 6-1, 245), LB Brian Smith (Jr. 6-1, 225), S John Pawielski (So. 5-11, 190), LB Mario Reese (Fr. 6-3, 220), CB Mike Wojciechowski (Jr. 5-8, 185).

When the Badgers have the ball…

Jim Sorgi is likely back under center but Anthony Davis will not play. Wisconsin's offense has been surprisingly inconsistent this season and will need to be at its best this week. It may help Dwayne Smith and Booker Stanley, though, know for certain that they are the guys after weeks of uncertainty.

With its back against the wall and Davis out of the lineup, expect the team to rally around Sorgi as it has done at junctures throughout the season. The passing game has to pick up for the Badgers to have any chance here.

Minnesota's defensive strength is in safeties Justin Isom and Eli Ward, a pair of hard hitters who cover a lot of ground. They could make Wisconsin's receivers' lives treacherous on the intermediate crossing patterns the Badgers like to employ.

Gopher defensive tackle Darrell Reid will not get a chance to back up his words against Anthony Davis, but no matter who ends up with the bulk of Wisconsin's carries, the Badgers offensive line will assuredly be fired up to prove that they can run the ball against Minnesota. The Badgers also should be inspired to rebound from their poor showing against Northwestern.

And if there is solace facing Minnesota's offense it is that its defense, while much improved from last season, has been susceptible, as Michigan State and Michigan proved, scoring 82 total points in two wins over the Gophers.

Special Teams matchup

Wisconsin specialistsMinnesota specialists
P R.J. Morse (Jr. 6-1, 246) Rhys Lloyd (Jr. 6-1, 220)
PK Mike Allen (Jr. 6-2, 186)Lloyd
KO Scott Campbell (Sr. 6-0, 245)Lloyd
KR B. Williams (So. 5-11, 170) Laurence Maroney (Fr. 5-11, 200)
PR Jim Leonhard (Jr. 5-8, 183)Marion Barber III (So. 5-11, 210)
LS Matt Katula (Jr. 6-6, 282) Peter Prudden (Sr. 6-4, 235)
H Matt Schabert (Jr. 6-2, 203) Bryan Cupito (Fr. 6-1, 190)

With Jim Leonhard, Brandon Williams, Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney returning punts and kicks, something electrifying is bound to happen in the return game. Leonhard leads the Big Ten in punt returns; the Gophers' Barber is second. Williams is the Big Ten leader in kick return average for conference-only games; Barber, meanwhile, averages 25.6 yards per kick return, Maroney an astounding 32.1.

If the game comes down to kicks, give a slight edge to Minnesota. Mike Allen is expected to kick for the Badgers but is not likely to be full strength. Rhys Lloyd has been solid, hitting eight of 10 attempts, including a long of 54 yards, this season.

BadgerNation.com forecast

Minnesota is riding high; the Badgers are slipping fast and missing one of the best players in college football. The Gophers, on the verge of their best season in nearly a century, will be fired up, but with the Axe on the line, both teams cannot help but get psyched for this one. It is a make or break game for both teams, a huge contest as the top seven teams in the Big Ten jockey for position heading into the Bowl season. Expect a hotly contested game from the opening kickoff, with plenty of big plays on either side. Each team will break a return at some point and each team is going to have success running the football. The key is Wisconsin's offense. If it is back on track, this game will be a fight to the very end and the Badgers will pull it out. If the Gophers defense frustrates Wisconsin, though, it will be a long day in the Metrodome.

Prediction: Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 27

Badger Nation Top Stories