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November 23, 2013

All-Out Blitz: Minnesota





Welcome to BadgerBlitz.com's "All-Out Blitz,", where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent. The Badgers (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) are into the home stretch of their season, but will have to get past their archrival to try and make a BCS Bowl Game. This week the Badgers will head up to Minneapolis to battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers for Paul Bunyan's Axe, with the game set to air on ESPN with a 2:30 p.m. kickoff time.

In the meantime, here's what you need to know about the Golden Gophers:

Head coach: Jerry Kill (3rd season @ Minnesota), 17-18 (8-14 Big Ten)
Minnesota All-Time Record: 660-490-44 (.571)
2013 Record: 8-2 (4-2 Big Ten)
Ranking: 25 (BCS), RV (AP), 23 (Coaches Poll)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 58-56-8

Season outlook

Minnesota's season has changed dramatically since their back-to-back losses to Iowa and Michigan. The Gophers are now riding a four-game conference winning streak after beating Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State, with head coach Jerry Kill taking a leave of absence mid-season to focus on getting healthy after another seizure kept him from coaching the Michigan game. It's been a great story for the Gophers, who beat a ranked team and secured one rivalry trophy during the process, but they'll face their biggest test yet this week when the Badgers come to town with Paul Bunyan's Axe in tow.

This year

Minnesota's offensive turnaround has been based on a stronger, power-based running game. The Gophers are up to an average of 4.69 yards per carry after floundering at or near the bottom over the last few seasons. They run the ball on about 71 percent of their plays, one of the highest splits in the country, and disguise a few basic bread and butter plays with window dressings like fly sweeps, much like how the Badgers use Melvin Gordon this year.

Under center the Gopher quarterbacks are probably better known for their rushing ability than their downfield passing. Starting quarterback Philip Nelson rushes about 10 times per game, and is picking up 4.29 yards per carry when he does tuck the ball and run. Nelson has six rushing touchdowns on the season, but he's actually under performing his backup when it comes to the quarterback run game. Freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner has started a few games for the Gophers and is used as a change of pace now, but he averages over 10 rushes per game and is tied for the team lead with seven rushing touchdowns.

There's a little less to write home about when the Gophers need to put the ball in the air. Nelson and Leidner have a combined completion percentage of 57.1 percent on the season, which is up from last season in Nelson's case but still a little shy of what you could call an accurate quarterback.

The Gophers do seem to have found a solid running back for this season and the year after, though. Junior tailback David Cobb has 942 rushing yards on 175 carries this season, averaging about 5.38 yards per carry and 17.5 touches per game. The Gophers have force-fed him the ball in recent weeks, though. His carries have spiked up to 31, 29, and 27 during their last three games, and Cobb has two rushing touchdowns to go with his increased workload.

Minnesota's receiving corps is arguably a little thinner than Wisconsin's, which is saying a lot if you've seen the Badgers try and move the ball without Jared Abbrederis. The Gophers have three "receivers" with more than 10 catches: wide receiver Derrick Engel has 25 catches for 401 yards and five touchdowns, whereas tight end Maxx Williams has 17 catches for 299 yards and four touchdowns. The only other player to get into double-figures is Cobb, who has 14 catches for 148 yards on the season. But the Gophers got some bad news this week when Engel hurt his knee during practice on Sunday. He's doubtful to play in the game as of this writing, which could really hamstring Minnesota's passing attack if he isn't able to make it on to the field. Engel is their most-targeted receiver on third downs in particular, so the Gophers would need someone to step up if he's out and the Badgers can hold them to short gains on first and second down.

Statistically the Gophers have improved on defense, but they're actually allowing more yards per play from this year to last year (5.76 in 2013 compared to 5.29 in 2012). As far as I can tell that's because they've regressed a little in pass defense. They're allowing 7.0 yards per attempt so far this year compared to 6.0 in 2012, which overshadows the small improvement they've made per-down on stopping the run.

Even if the Gophers can stop the run in the first half, look for the Badgers to stick with their base plays going into the second half. The Gophers are allowing 4.89 yards per carry in the second half compared to 3.96 in the first half, and as a whole they're allowing 4.78 yards per carry on third downs, including a 7.04 mark on short third downs with 1 to 3 yards to gain.

Matchup to watch: Wisconsin's rushing offense vs. Minnesota's rushing defense

One way or the other we're going to find out just how much Minnesota's defense has improved when they play the Badgers. Wisconsin boasts the best rushing attack Minnesota will have seen this season, and they haven't exactly thrived against the stiffest competition. The Badgers will have to perform well in the second half in particular- the Gophers' average yards per carry allowed spikes up in the second half, so look for the Badgers to try and wear the Gophers down after halftime. The Gophers can win this game if they can stop Wisconsin on the ground- but if they can't it might be a long day for them.

The pick: Wisconsin 35 Minnesota 17

I'm going to use this caveat quickly before saying anything else here: rivalry games can always be crazy, and you have to give the Gophers credit for playing their best football in the last few years. Balls bounce in funny ways during rivalry games, so a lucky break here or there for either team could be decisive.

But speaking strictly from a numbers perspective I think this is a pretty good matchup for the Badgers. Minnesota's run defense has improved, but Wisconsin's rushing offense is much better than last year's version. And while the Gophers have seen a noticeable uptick in drive efficiency, Wisconsin's 3-4 defense has them up near the top of most normal and advanced defensive statistics, especially against the run. The Gophers will need to find a way to move the ball through the air if the Badgers keep up their stretch of defending the run well, but it's also looking like they'll be without top wide receiver Derrick Engel.

The problem here for the Gophers is that while they've improved statistically nearly across the board, the Badgers have improved as well from last year's team and they've improved by bigger margins. This game could be close in the first half, especially if the Badgers turn the ball over a few times, but in the end I think the Badgers' offense is going to be too much for an improved Gopher defense to handle.

The point after:

Ben Strickland and Thomas Hammock are the only two full-time assistant coaches on Wisconsin's staff who have played or coached in this rivalry game before. The rest of Wisconsin's staff is new this year along with Gary Andersen, who will look to improve to 2-0 in trophy games in his first season at Wisconsin if the Badgers win this weekend.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.



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