Saturday Spotlight: Minnesota at Wisconsin

In this week's installment of the "Saturday Spotlight", .NET's Scott Eklund focuses on a Big 10 matchup that features a "Border War" between Minnesota and Wisconsin for the right to host Paul Bunyan's axe for another year. Minnesota and Wisconsin have met 116 times and they'll do it this year in Madison.

With the cold weather blast that came through this week, the upper-Mid West has looked a lot more like it's late December instead of early October. Temps should be in the mid to upper 40's at kickoff and the track could be slick during the game.

First year head coach Bret Bielema of Wisconsin has a huge line – it averages 6-5, 325 across the board – and he may have the top lineman in the country when it's all said and done. What many people don't know, is that he has some solid defensive players that will receive some looks from NFL scouts once they can take visits for workouts.

On the Golden Gopher sidelines, head coach Glen Mason has been roaming the sidelines for 10 years and he's produced some outstanding players that are enjoying solid NFL careers. He's got a few players who are standouts at their positions and they're likely to hear their names called next spring when the NFL holds their annual draft.

So sit back and watch one of the early games on ESPN on Saturday as Minnesota and Wisconsin go at it starting at noon (EST).

Wisconsin

OT Joe Thomas – He's a mean S.O.B. and he's also athletic enough to keep the most dangerous pass-rushers at bay. He specializes in drive blocking on running plays and he's got good feet, allowing him to pull and make blocks in space where a man of his dimensions (6-8, 310) usually struggles. He's got a great wingspan, able to force defensive ends wide without much effort. He's widely regarded as the top lineman in the college game. He's projected to play right tackle in the NFL and should be a top 15 selection.

S Joe Stellmacher – A ball-hawking, hard-hitting safety, Stellmacher is probably the most feared hitter in the Big 10 this year and his size (6-1, 225) allows him to play like a linebacker. He leads the Badgers with 45 tackles (including 27 solo) and he's very smart. He can struggle at times in space, but that may just mean he may need to make the switch to strongside linebacker like Carolina's Thomas Davis did last year. Probably a third-rounder at this point.

DT Nick Hayden – He won't be 21 until early February, but make no mistake, Hayden is "The Man" in the middle of the Badgers' defensive line. From his interior spot as a 19 year-old sophomore in 2005, Hayden had 5.5 sacks and 58 tackles, but this year he's struggle handling the double-team's offenses have thrown at him. He could really benefit from another year of seasoning and the expectation is he'll return for his senior season in 2007. If he decides to come out early, he probably wouldn't be a first-day selection. The talent is there, he just needs to develop it.

Other Wisconsin players to watch:

QB John Stocco (6-2, 206)
DE Joe Monty (6-2, 258)
LB Mark Zalewski (6-1, 240)
FS Roderick Rogers (6-2, 190)
P Ken DeBauche (6-2, 221) **underclassman


Minnesota

TE Mark Spaeth – He currently ranks second on Minnesota's receiving list with 25 receptions for 348 yards and two touchdowns, but he's even more valuable in the running game. He's got a huge frame (6-6, 270) and he's athletic enough to stretch the middle-seam when called upon. Spaeth creates mismatches everywhere he goes and he knows how to use his body. Most likely a late first-round selection, depending on workouts.

RB Gary Russell – He was deemed academically ineligible for the 2006 season and there is a chance he could come out early depending on where he's projected. Russell follows in the footsteps of Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney as standout backs who can move the chains, but also break the long one when the opportunity presents itself. Russell doesn't have a big body (6-0, 200), but he's a tough runner and he's got a knack for hitting the hole at the exact time it opens up. If he can regain his eligibility, I expect him to return, but it's always iffy when this happens to a player.

OT Joe Ainslie – He's big (6-6, 320) and he's got a huge wingspan. He's projected to move to the right tackle spot at the next level and he'd make an excellent strongside pass-protector. He doesn't have outstanding feet, but they're good enough to get the job done. Right now he probably projects as a second-day selection, but depending on the need of teams and how he does in pre-Draft workouts, he could sneak into the first day.

Other Minnesota players to watch:

QB Bryan Cupito (6-1, 195)
WR Logan Payne (6-2, 200)
C Tyson Swaggert (6-4, 285)
LB Mario Reese (6-3, 230)
FS Trumaine Banks (5-11, 190)
WR Ernie Wheelwright (6-5, 215) **underclassman





Other games to watch this weekend: (2) Florida at (11) Auburn; (4) Michigan at Penn State; (19) Missouri at Texas A&M; Maryland at Virginia; UCLA at (18) Oregon.

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