UW v. Minnesota, matchup analysis

A close look at the Badgers and Gophers leading up to Saturday's game at the Metrodome

Minnesota offense versus Wisconsin defense

Minnesota projected starters Wisconsin projected starters

QB Bryan Cupito (Jr. 6-3, 205) MLB Mark Zalewski (Jr. 6-2, 228)
TB Laurence Maroney (Jr. 5-11, 210) WLB Dontez Sanders (Sr. 6-1, 223)
TE Matt Spaeth (Jr. 6-6, 270) SLB LaMarr Watkins (Sr. 6-1, 223)
LT Steve Shidell (So. 6-5, 285) RE Matt Shaughnessy (Fr. 6-6, 230)
LG Mark Setterstrom (Sr. 6-3, 305) RT Nick Hayden (So. 6-5, 302)
C Greg Eslinger (Sr. 6-3, 285) LT Jason Chapman (Fr. 6-4, 280)
RG Mike Nicholson (Sr. 6-5, 285) LE Joe Monty (Jr. 6-2, 252)
RT Tony Brinkhaus (So. 6-4, 300) FS Roderick Rogers (Jr. 6-2, 181) 
TE Jarod Posthumus (Sr. 6-4, 255) SS Joe Stellmacher (Jr. 6-1, 216)
WR Logan Payne (Jr. 6-2, 200) CB Brett Bell (Sr. 6-0, 200)
WR Ernie Wheelwright (So. 6-5, 215) CB Allen Langford (Fr. 5-11, 187)

Aside from their loss at Penn State, Minnesota has been scary good offensively. Heisman Trophy candidate Laurence Maroney gets most of the press clippings, understandably, but this is a multi-faceted attack with two very good running backs, improved quarterback play and big, athletic wide receivers. Oh, and the Gophers have the best offensive line in the Big Ten, if not the nation.

It appears that starting quarterback Bryan Cupito will be ready to play Saturday after some question about his availability. He left last week's win at Michigan after suffering a pair of shoulder injuries.

Cupito has played pretty well this season, completing 55 percent of his passes for 1,208 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. His favorite targets are the wide receiver trio of Ernie Wheelwright (17 catches, 265 yards, three touchdowns), Logan Payne (17-244-1) and Jared Ellerson (12-310-2). The Gophers balance their imposing running game with a passing attack adept at stretching the field. Cupito also has security blankets in Maroney (11-131-1) and tight end Matt Spaeth (9-106-1).

However, while Cupito has attempted 149 passes, the Gophers have run the ball 309 times through their 5-1 start. The leader is Maroney, who has 875 yards and seven touchdowns on 165 attempts. One of the best running backs in the nation, Maroney has an uncanny blend of power and speed, and has a knack for the game-breaking play.

Maroney's backup, though, is also a terrific player. Gary Russell (5-11, 215) is a tough, hard-nosed runner who has eight touchdowns and 505 rushing yards on just 66 carries. That is 7.7 yards per carry. He has also caught a touchdown pass, giving him nine scores this season. His 61-yard run set up UM's game-winning field goal last week.

Then there is the offensive line. Greg Eslinger is the best center in the nation and left guard Mark Setterstrom is arguably the best at his position in the Big Ten. Saturday, both Eslinger and Setterstrom will be starting for the 45th time in their careers. Right guard Mike Nicholson, a solid player in his own right, will be making his 15th start, and tackles Steve Shidell and Tony Brinkhaus can hold their own. This unit has rarely allowed pressure on Cupito. Add in tight end Matt Spaeth, who has 28 career starts, and you have an extremely talented, veteran set of blockers.

Wisconsin's defensive line has performed well this year overall, but was out-played last week, due in large part to being caught off-balance by Northwestern's spread offense. The Gophers run a much more straight forward offense, but this will be the greatest physical challenge for UW's front seven all season.

The Badgers back seven has given up far too many big plays in the passing game this season. Last week's 51-48 loss to Northwestern was simply the most acute example of UW's defensive struggles. The Badgers' defense has played well for stretches and, prior to last week, had been solid after halftime. Now, UW must rise up to the challenge Minnesota will present or it will be a very long day in the Dome.

UW will welcome the return of strong safety Joe Stellmacher, who provides a steady hand in the secondary. Classmate Johnny White, though, can provide a physical presence against the Gophers' running game.

Wisconsin offense versus Minnesota defense

Minnesota projected starters Wisconsin projected starters

MLB Kyle McKenzie (Sr. 6-1, 235) QB John Stocco (Jr. 6-2, 197)
DLB Mario Reese (Jr. 6-3, 230) TB Brian Calhoun (Jr. 5-10, 203)
WLB John Shevlin (So. 6-1,225) FB Chris Pressley (So. 6-0, 256)
RE Steve Davis (Fr. 6-2, 230) LT Joe Thomas (Jr. 6-8, 303)
RT Anthony Montgomery (Sr. 6-5, 310) LG Matt Lawrence (Sr. 6-5, 295)
LT Mark Losli (Sr. 6-6, 295) C Donovan Raiola (Sr. 6-3, 294)
LE Keith Lipka (Sr. 6-3, 265) RG Jason Palermo (Sr. 6-3, 307)
SS Dominic Jones (Fr. 5-9, 180) RT Kraig Urbik (Fr. 6-6, 317)
FS John Pawielski (Sr. 5-11, 200) TE Owen Daniels
CB Trumaine Banks (Jr. 5-11, 185) WR Brandon Williams (Sr. 5-10, 180)
CB Jamal Harris (So.6-0, 185) WR Jonathan Orr (Sr. 6-3, 190)

Wisconsin's offense has been ever scarier than Minnesota's this season, averaging 41.2 points and 413.2 yards per game.

Brian Calhoun has been fantastic, with 849 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing and 295 yards receiving. But Wisconsin has coupled a dynamic running game with an efficient passing game. Quarterback John Stocco is completing 62 percent of his passes, and has thrown for 1,181 yards and 11 touchdowns, along with six interceptions.

Receivers Brandon Williams (24 receptions, 371 yards, two touchdowns) and Jonathan Orr (17-298-6) have been wreaked havoc on opposing defenses the past two weeks and will challenge the Gophers' secondary. The Badgers will also benefit from the return of tight end Owen Daniels, who scored two touchdowns the last time UW visited the Twin Cities.

Minnesota's defense is better this season than in recent campaigns, but still leaves something to be desired. That said the Gophers were stout last week at Michigan and head into this game extremely confident.

The Gophers have experience up front with tackles Mark Losli (37 career starts) and Anthony Montgomery (25), and end Keith Lipka (10), who was a high school teammate of Calhoun. Freshman Steve Davis, will be challenged to contend with the Badgers' stretch running game.

If Mike Sherels is healthy, he will start at middle linebacker, with Kyle McKenzie shifted back over to the drop position. The Gophers improved defense has received some quality play from its linebackers this season.

The heart and soul for Minnesota is former walk-on turned captain John Pawielski, a free safety who has 45 tackles, including four for loss. He will be busy with Calhoun in run defense and patrolling the secondary versus the Badgers' passing game. With Brandon Owens injured, undersized but athletic freshman Dominic Jones is set to start at strong safety.

The Gophers allowed more than 400 yards to Colorado State and Purdue and more than 500 to Penn State. They rebounded from the latter performance in impressive fashion, holding the Wolverines to an anemic 249 yards. This week the Gophers face the most effective offense they have dealt with all season. But the Badgers have not exactly faced the most intimidating defenses in the nation this season either. It will be an interesting measuring stick for both teams.

Wisconsin versus Minnesota special teams

Minnesota projected starters Wisconsin projected starters

PK/KO Jason Giannini (Fr. 5-10,180) PK/KO Taylor Mehlhaff (So. 5-11, 179)
P/H Justin Kucek (Fr. 6-0, 200)/Bryan Cupito (Jr. 6-3, 205) P/H Ken DeBauche (So. 6-2, 219)
LS Robert McGarry (So. 6-3, 215) LS Steve Johnson (So. 6-3, 247)
PR Dominic Jones (Fr. 5-9, 180) PR Brandon Williams (Sr. 5-10, 180)
KR Laurence Maroney (Jr. 5-11, 210) KR Brandon Williams (Sr. 5-10, 180)

A subplot in this game will be the lengths to which Minnesota may or may not go to keep Brandon Williams from having an opportunity in the return game. Last week, Northwestern kicked away from Williams on all but one kickoff. Gopher kicker Jason Giannini has recorded just two touchbacks all season, but UM is allowing only 19 yards per kickoff return this season and only 4.4 yards per punt return. It will be interesting to see if the Gophers kick away and trust their coverage units.

The Badgers' coverage teams are also in for a challenge. Maroney has only returned four kicks all season, but has picked up 96 yards. The Gophers' other primary kick returner, Jakari Wallace, is averaging 33.9 yards per return on nine attempts, including a 65-yard long. Freshman punt returner Dominic Jones is averaging 10 yards per return.

Giannini has a rather curious kicking line. He is 10 of 12 on field-goal attempts this season, but he has missed five of 24 extra-point attempts. He made three field goals in Minnesota's win at Michigan last week, including the game-winner.

Wisconsin's Taylor Mehlhaff has made seven straight field goal attempts since missing a 51-yarder and is 8 of 9 on the year. Mehlhaff also has 19 touchbacks in 44 kickoffs. Punter Ken DeBauche is one of the best in the nation.

UM punter Justin Kucek is averaging just 39.3 yards per punt, but has yet to have a touchback in 17 attempts.

Final thoughts

This is going to be another high-scoring affair. Both Wisconsin's and Minnesota's defenses are ill-equipped to stop their opponents' running game, and the improving play of quarterbacks John Stocco and Bryan Cupito creates an even more daunting defensive challenge.

In the end, the tag team of Maroney and Russell will be bit too much for the Badgers to handle.

BadgerNation.com prediction: Minnesota 38, Wisconsin 33

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