The Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe is just about to get under way this weekend. The Wisconsin Badgers and the Minnesota Golden Gophers will meet for the 122nd time this Saturday, and the game is scheduled to kick off at 11 a.m. on ESPNU. To get the scoop on Jerry Kill's team, BadgerBlitz.com went to the experts at GopherIllustrated.com. Lucas Trickle is a staff writer and recruiting analyst for GopherIllustrated.com, and we're very grateful to Lucas for giving us a hand.
Beat writer preview: Minnesota
What kind of shape are the Gophers in for this year's Axe game? Gray's injury status is obviously high on a lot of people's radars, but how are the Gophers doing health-wise this week?
Lucas Trickle: The coaches say that Gray is apparently going to play in some capacity this week. Minnesota fans think that if he plays it might be at receiver this week. The Gophers are a big banged up at receiver. Devin Crawford-Tufts, Isaac Fruechte, and Marcus Jones are all questionable heading into Saturday's contest. It sounds like Crawford-Tufts and Fruechte are both expected to play. Like Wisconsin, Minnesota will be missing their starting left tackle in Eddie Olson. Olson rolled up his ankle against Northwestern and has been in a boot this week.
On the defensive side, Derrick Wells, Roland Johnson, and Keanon Cooper are all questionable for the game on Saturday. Wells has a laceration on his leg and missed most of the second half against Northwestern last weekend. Roland Johnson is in the rotation at defensive tackle so he would be missed if he couldn't go as well. Cooper probably had his best game last Saturday against Northwestern. I'm not sure what exactly his injury is, but it would hurt the Gophers at an already thin linebacker position if he can't go.
What should Wisconsin fans expect to see on offense from the Gophers? What kind of different elements do Gray and Shortell bring when they're under center?
LT: Minnesota wants to be a run-first offense. Donnell Kirkwood has done a relatively good job running the ball so far this year. He's very physical, but does not have the elusiveness to break off big runs. I would expect them to try to establish the run and mix in the passing game. If they get behind early, I would expect to see Shortell air it out a little bit more. The offensive lines play will be key in the Gophers success against Wisconsin.
Gray is obviously the better runner of the two quarterbacks. He adds an extra element that teams have to prepare for on a week-by-week basis. Shortell has the stronger arm, but he has struggled against Big Ten competition. Shortell also needs to do a better job in the pocket when he is getting pressure. In the past couple weeks, he has taken a handful of sacks by hanging onto the ball too long.
What are the Gophers' biggest strengths and weaknesses on defense this season? Have they made enough improvements from last year's unit to compete regularly in the Big Ten?
LT: Until the Gophers can prove otherwise, their weakness is stopping the run. Against both Iowa and Northwestern the defense gave up big runs in the first half. They need to show that they can stop the run from beginning to end. It appears that the secondary is the strength of the Minnesota defense. They have done a good job through the first six games. They have definitely been a pleasant surprise.
It's tough to answer the second question. I don't think they have shown the consistency to compete regularly in the Big Ten yet. In terms of talent and speed, they are definitely better than a year ago. They have shut down Iowa and Northwestern in the second half, but that was after it was already too late. If they can put a full football game together then maybe we can say they can start competing in Big Ten contests.
How are Gopher fans feeling in Jerry Kill's second year as the head coach? A four-win start in the non-conference is obviously nice, but have opinions shifted for the better or taken a turn for the worse since he arrived in Minneapolis?
LT: I think fans are still happy with what Coach Kill and his staff are doing. The fans realize that they are not just going to come in and change things overnight. The team has improved from a year ago and I think fans find that encouraging. If the Gophers can pick up a couple of Big Ten wins and get to a bowl game that will be a huge step in the right direction. Kill has shown he can rebuild programs before and most fans believe he can do the same in Minnesota.
Finally, what's your prediction for this week's game and why?
LT: My prediction is Wisconsin 35, Minnesota 20. Wisconsin rans for over 450 yards against Purdue last week so that doesn't bode well for a Minnesota defense struggling to stop the run. I think Ball, White, and Gordon will all have the opportunity to expose the Gophers run defense. If the Gophers can stop the run, this game might be closer than people think. The Gophers will also have to move the ball on offense.
The offensive line which could be starting a couple of backups will have to open up holes for Kirkwood and help keep Shortell on his feet. Shortell will have to make good decisions and show he can help the Gophers move the ball consistently if Minnesota wants to have a chance to win this game. There is to many unknowns with Minnesota still and it appears Wisconsin is playing their best football right now so I can't imagine not picking the Badgers.
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