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November 22, 2013
Breaking down the Battle: Part 2
Here's part two in our joint preview series between BadgerBlitz.com and GopherIllustrated.com, where Joe Perovich and I break down the key factors in the upcoming Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe.
Wisconsin Special Teams vs. Minnesota Special Teams
John Veldhuis: This is a big advantage for the Gophers, mostly because their kicking game has been much more reliable than Wisconsin's has been. Chris Hawthorne is 12-of-15 on field goals the season, whereas the Badgers are a combined 10-of-15 between the now-banished Kyle French and new starter Jack Russell.
Russell has hit each of his last five attempts, but the Gophers have been much more consistent. Neither team has a big advantage over the other in the punting and kickoff game, so the Gophers get the edge here.
Joe Perovich: Wisconsin has struggled all year at forcing touchbacks on kickoffs, and that bodes well for the talented kickoff return unit on the Gophers side.
Minnesota tops off their 4th ranked Big Ten kickoff return unit with the right to brag about being in a group that special team coaches will salivate over: one of just three teams in the conference with a kickoff return touchdown (worth mentioning: Wisconsin is not one of the other two).
Junior Kyle French began the year as Wisconsin's field goal specialist, but a rocky start gave way to sophomore Jack Russell's chance. Russell hasn't been that much better overall (5/7 on FGA compared to French's 5/8), but he's fallen on the right side of the "what have you done for me lately?" mentality, cashing in on five of his past five. He has not made a field goal longer than 38 yards yet, so if the Gophers can hold during certain drives and keep the Badgers beyond the 25 or so, coach Gary Andersen may be hesitant to trot his kicker out into a situation he's not accustomed to.
Failing to bring up Peter Mortell may rake-in equal criticism from both Wisconsin and Minnesota. Even though he will be punting against the Badgers on Saturday, Minnesota's Mortell calls Green Bay, WI his home. Mortell won Big Ten player of the week awards after the last two games the Gophers played, and he is the first Gopher to ever win the award in consecutive weeks. He is also the first Gopher to receive the award twice in one season since running back Marion Barber III in 2004. The Gophers four-game win streak might have been over long ago if Mortell hadn't made pinning teams at their own 1-yard line a weekly routine.
Verdict: Minnesota Special Teams
Wisconsin big play offense (chunk plays of 20+) vs. Minnesota big play defense
John Veldhuis: This is where the Badgers have really shined offensively. They're second in the Big Ten in long scrimmage plays of 20 yards or more with 63 on the season, with Gordon and White accounting for over half of those plays.
The Badgers also get some bigger plays on play-action passes from Stave to Abbrederis, so that's something the Gophers will need to prep for. Keep an eye in particular on a fly sweep where Gordon is sent in motion- the Badgers set up a few different plays off of that motion, so keeping those plays in check for Minnesota is key. Right now I'm not sure that they'll be able to keep them under control for enough of the game.
Verdict: Wisconsin Big Play Offense
Joe Perovich: An example of a hollow stat would be this: the Big Ten as a whole has seven passing plays completed of 70+ yards or more. Lets give it meaning now. By themselves, the Wisconsin running backs have six rushes of 70+ yards or more.
Think about that for a second.
The general public views Wisconsin as disciplined, but don't for a second confuse that for "boring". Minnesota's big plays on the defensive side of the ball come from the well-known Ra'Shede Hageman, but also the turnover producer DE Theiren Cockran, who has 3.5 sacks in his last four games and is tied for first in the conference for fumbles forced. Both Hageman and Cockran are stout in the trenches, and they have to be able to slow an offense this Saturday that has the ability to go the length of the field in mere seconds.
Oh yeah! Wisconsin can pass for big plays too. The Badgers lead the Big Ten in pass plays over 50 yards, and also have more 60+ yard pass plays than Minnesota has 40+ yard pass plays (4 to 3). The Badgers are nearly on par with the conference average in pass plays of less yards than what is described above, but the feeling that Wisconsin leaves us with is an uncomfortable one: the inability to relax in situations that in the past have been non-threatening.
Verdict: Wisconsin Big Play Offense
Minnesota big play offense vs. Wisconsin big play defense
John Veldhuis: The Gophers haven't been a deep-shot kind of team this year, and it's worked to their advantage. They grind teams out and try to win the time of possession battle, so Wisconsin's going to have to win in the trenches on most downs if they want to keep the Gophers from running their offense the way they want to try and force a few punts out of them and give the ball back to their offense.
The Badgers have done a nice job of preventing big plays this year, but that won't matter as much if the Gophers keep converting on third down. The Badgers have some experience in this kind of trench war dating back to their game against Iowa, so I'm giving them a slight edge here.
Joe Perovich: Running back David Cobb has improved the Gophers' big play chances with his recent emergence. He doesn't break off as many big runs as the Wisconsin duo (James White has been much better in this category at home), but he's nearly on par with both in terms of running plays that have gone between 30 & 50 yards.
Minnesota has lost their senior WR Derrick Engel for what might be some extended time, so the majority of the duty will fall on Philip Nelson's favorite target, freshman TE Maxx Williams (3 touchdowns in his last five games). Maxx will need help from two particular freshmen wide-outs that have to step up and fill the Engel void, Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky. Gophers' head coach Jerry Kill noted during his Tuesday press conference that he believes both have flown under the radar and are ready.
While Minnesota's methodical style of play has worked, they haven't been explosive. Wisconsin has allowed just five plays to go for over 40 yards in this season, and they are extremely efficient at keeping offenses within a 10-yard zone. Look for Wisconsin's 5'9" standout Sojourn Shelton roaming the field on Saturday. He's tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions, and it's certainly not a fluke.
Verdict: Wisconsin Big Play Defense
Minnesota receivers vs. UW Defensive backs
John Veldhuis: The Gophers took a big hit this week when wide receiver Derrick Engel hurt his knee in practice on Sunday. As of this writing the Gophers haven't ruled him out for the game, but it would be a big loss for the Gophers if Engel were to miss the game. That would put more of an onus on Maxx Williams to step up and catch a few passes. But even if Engel doesn't play the Badgers will need to play solid coverage.
They've been effective so far this season, but they were particularly vulnerable to back-shoulder passes against Arizona State. If Engel misses the game I think the Badgers have a big advantage here, but if he plays I think it's probably closer to a push.
Verdict: Wisconsin, but not by as much if Engel plays
Joe Perovich: Sojourn Shelton's sole purpose at Wisconsin the next four years will be provoking nightmares.
His size could make some people overlook (I'm not even going to act like that wasn't a pun) his talent, but he had offers from Florida State and Nebraska before eventually going to Wisconsin, and it's because of his ability to transcend his height with quickness, leaping ability, and a confidence in himself that enhances his talent even further. He has four interceptions (three in conference play, a tremendous sign for a freshman), and leads his team in passes defended.
Leaping ability aside, Minnesota will still try to use the 6'3" frames of D.Jones, Wolitarsky, and Fruechte to give themselves the best chance to haul in passes successfully when in the vicinity of Shelton. Gophers' coach Jerry Kill mentioned on Tuesday that Maxx Williams is athletic enough to be used as a receiver, so don't be surprised if they try get him involved in a mismatch with Shelton.
The verdict on this match-up is unfortunately simple. With Derrick Engel not in a uniform this Saturday and his return unknown, the Gophers can only hope their youth can carve out a niche versus a defense that has allowed the least number of TDs through the air in the Big Ten.
Verdict: Wisconsin Defensive Backs
Joel Stave vs. Phillip Nelson & Mitch Leidner
John Veldhuis: This individual matchup is pretty close: statistically Stave is a more accurate passer- he's completing 63.1 percent of his passes this season, with Abbrederis and White as his top two leading receivers. He also has a 16-8 touchdown to interception ratio, and is prone to making a bad read or two per game that costs the Badgers a turnover.
On the other hand the Gophers have a more versatile quarterback rotation, with Nelson and Leidner rushing for 13 combined touchdowns. I think this is a push in the end- I think you'll get more out of the downfield passing game with Stave but you always have to account for the quarterback run game.
Joe Perovich: The early stages of the 2013 Gophers' season featured a split between fans and analysts about whether it was the right decision to start the bigger and more accurate redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner, or remain confident in the guy you thought was a much better option at the start of the year Philip Nelson, even though he was suffering through a lingering hamstring injury.
While Leidner proved he could run the ball effectively, he didn't perform well enough through the air to convince Kill and his staff that Philip Nelson didn't deserve another shot when healthy. The two shared the spot for a bit, but the Indiana game marked the end of the two-headed QB system. Philip Nelson has since been an errorless commodity for the Gophers. Even though he's outplayed Joel Stave in the month of November, an objective fan should give respect where respect is due and hand Stave the edge until there is more than a one-month sample size to draw from. The fifth-ranked passer in the conference has a better TD to INT ratio on the road this season (7:2 away, 9:5 home), and he gets the nod here.
Verdict: Wisconsin's QB Joel Stave
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