Defense faces stern challenge

Needing to rebound from last week's struggles, UW is hoping to revisit last season's success against the Gophers

Last November the University of Minnesota football team brought its No. 4 ranked rushing offense into Camp Randall and promptly ran into a wall. The Gophers' offense sputtered out of the gates and UW jumped out to a 31-0 lead before UM knew what had hit it.

By the time the 38-14 drubbing was complete, the Wisconsin defense had sent a vaunted Minnesota ground attack home in a gold and maroon swoon. The Badgers' allowed just 73 yards rushing to a team that had entered the game averaging 266.2.

Afterward, Minnesota coach Glen Mason called the Wisconsin defense "one of the best in the nation." It can be argued that the Badgers have not played as complete a game since. Wisconsin dominated in every facet of the victory over the Gophers. However, the following weekend the Badgers surrendered 49 points to Michigan State and the 2004 unraveling began.

Fast forward almost a year and the 2005 Badger defense finds itself looking towards Saturday's contest at Minnesota (5-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) with the hope of repeating the type of performance that returned the famous Paul Bunyan Axe to Madison last year.

Wisconsin's defense took it on the chin last week, yielding nearly 700 yards total offense in a 51-48 loss at Northwestern.

Now, the Badgers (5-1, 2-1) face the daunting task of matching up with the Gophers, who again own the nation's No. 4 ranked rushing offense. With tailbacks Laurence Maroney (875 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Gary Russell (505 yards, 8 touchdowns) leading the way, Minnesota is averaging 280.5 yards rushing per game.

In order to keep Paul Bunyan's Axe, the Badgers will need to find a way to counter an extremely talented Minnesota offensive line, known for their tendency to create holes by cutting down tree trunks with axes of their own.

"They're great at the cut block," UW junior linebacker Mark Zalewski said. "They move real well and they can pull and get around the edge. They're as good as any linemen we'll see this year."

At 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds, Minnesota center Greg Eslinger might not be the Paul Bunyan of offensive linemen, but in the Twin Cities he has gained a similar heroic reputation. Called the nation's best center by writers from Lindy's to Playboy, the senior anchor of a perennially outstanding unit lines up beside All-Big Ten guard Mark Setterstrom for the 45th time Saturday.

"If you do your research and homework you know that they've been outstanding the last five or six years as far as being able to run the football, so obviously their scheme has a lot to do with it," UW defensive line coach John Palermo said. "This is probably one of the best lines they've had."

Junior defensive end Joe Monty is the only player starting on Wisconsin's defensive line against the Gophers for the second straight year. He started in place of Erasmus James last season, as James returned from injury in limited action. Though Monty and the Badgers got the best of Minnesota, he still saw some things that impressed him.

"Just the way that they get off the ball," Monty said. "They're a lot quicker offensive line. They'll chop you a lot more then any other team."

In addition to facilitating the ground game, that much talked about offensive line has allowed quarterback Bryan Cupito and the passing game time to work. The Gophers lead the Big Ten in sacks allowed, with just three surrendered.

Getting into the backfield will be key for a Wisconsin defense that could not find a way to apply pressure to Brett Basanez and the Northwestern spread offense. Nor did they once manage to bring down Wildcat running back Tyrell Sutton for a loss.

The Badgers very much believe that a team shows its character by how it responds to a loss. Last week the Wisconsin defense could not find a way to wrap up Sutton as he repeatedly punished the Badgers up the middle of the field on his way to 244 yards and three touchdowns rushing. The Badgers will get their chance to respond when UM's Maroney and Russell line up in front of them this weekend.

Maroney is another fast, powerful runner. Defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said he will come straight at you and will not necessarily need to use fancy footwork to beat a defense. Last week, Sutton made a habit of breaking tackles or driving forward when Badger defenders seemingly had him wrapped up. Wisconsin will need to be both nimble in evading cut-blocking linemen and physical in stopping Maroney at the point of attack if they hope to slow the Gophers.

"The thing about Maroney that I think differentiates him from everybody else at this point is that he has great power and he's able to do it in quick bursts," Bielema said.

As far as the cut, or chop blocking, is concerned, Bielema cautioned that it is not all the Gophers do. He said it is certainly a technique employed by numerous teams, including the Badgers. John Palermo's son, senior guard Jason Palermo, has earned the nickname "chopper" for his employment of the tactic. That said, Bielema pointed out an advantage for defenders who prepare for it.

"The one thing about the chop block that I like from a defensive point of view is it's a one-shot wonder," Bielema said. "If they don't get you, you're on your feet."

Bielema cannot wait to take the field Saturday and neither can his players, he said. Last week marked a first for a number of young starters on the defense. They all knew what it felt like to lose before Saturday, but for many of them it was the first time they had done so as starters under the scrutiny of an entire city, campus and media.

As one of two captains on the defense, Zalewski feels it is up to the team's veterans to respond. He thinks they can. That was "just not our defense" he said. Monty agreed, as he cited an incremental slide through the second half.

"I don't know any specific point but everybody just seemed to panic a little bit and it got worse and worse," Monty said. "A snowball effect."

Palermo agreed that the team "absolutely" had a mental breakdown Saturday. When Basanez tripped just shy of the goal line in the Wildcats' opening second-half drive, the smile on his face indicated that the only thing stopping the Northwestern offense was, well — the Northwestern offense.

On subsequent drives late in the game the Badgers stripped the ball from Sutton and had a third-down stand. Those stops brought to an end the streak of seven consecutive scoring drives that the Wildcats constructed beginning with a late first-half field goal.

"I think philosophically we changed a little bit at the half, which was probably something we shouldn't have done," Palermo said. "We got away from playing base defense and we should have stayed in base defense."

Coming off a close win at Michigan, the Gophers are riding a wave of momentum, similar to the one UW enjoyed prior to last week's loss. If the Badgers' allow Minnesota's offense to crest, an already sold-out Metrodome crowd will be quick to jump all over them.

To approach last year's result against Minnesota, the Badgers will need to strive for a similar formula for success: Set the tone early and pressure Minnesota to abandon the run.

"I suspect we'll go out there and play our butts off Saturday," Palermo said. "Kids are ticked off, coaches are ticked off, and hopefully we'll go out there and make everybody proud."

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