Originally posted on isportsweb.com  |  Last updated 11/11/11

One look at the season records for Wisconsin (7-2, 3-2) and Minnesota (2-7, 1-4), and you’d think the Badgers had the clear advantage. And you’d probably be right. But the Gophers always play the Badgers tough. In fact, since 2003– the last time Minnesota won the rivalry (35-32)– the Badgers have won by single digit points in three out of five games. And when you consider the Gophers’ near-upset (24-31) of No. 17 Michigan State in East Lansing a week ago, Saturday’s game could be interesting.

Keys to the Game:

Minnesota

Marqueis Gray does it all for the Gopher offense, and he will be the main focus of the Badger defense Saturday.

They have to do whatever they can to repeat their performance against Michigan State. Quarterback Marqueis Gray put up a season-high 295 yards and three touchdowns against the nation’s top-ranked pass defense. He did throw two costly interceptions though, one of which cost them a shot at the game in the end. If he can cut down on the turnovers and continue to hook up with senior receiver Da’Jon McKnight, who had nine receptions for 173 yards and three touchdowns last week, Gray could give the Badger defense some trouble.  He is also a threat to run on each play and leads the Gophers in rushing with 571 yards and three touchdowns on the year. Wisconsin struggled to continue Ohio State’s Braxton Miller–another running quarterback– so Minnesota may design some plays where Gray can get in the open field.

The Gopher defense had trouble stopping MSU’s Kirk Cousins, who finished with 296 yards and two touchdowns. The Badgers know the feeling of being shredded by Cousins, and might look to put Russell Wilson in position to do the same to Minnesota. The Gophers don’t get to the QB very often and have just 10 sacks on the season. One of the best ways to contain Wilson is to put pressure on him and force him to throw early, so Minnesota may send blitzes from linebackers or defensive backs. Senior linebacker Gary Tinsley leads the team with two sacks and also has 60 tackles on the season. He will be tasked with covering passing routes over the middle and trying to slow down the Wisconsin running game. In the secondary, former-Badger Kim Royston leads the Gophers with 84 tackles and, with his nose for the ball, may be sent on some blitzes to disrupt the Wisconsin passing game.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin has had Paul Bunyan's Axe since 2004, and shows no signs of relinquishing it this season.

The Badgers can look at the Minnesota-Michigan State game and learn some valuable lessons. Or they can look at the two games they lost and learn the exact same thing. The Spartans attempted just 28 rushes against Minnesota and consequently had the ball for only 25 minutes and 32 seconds. In each of their losses, the Badgers had a similar ignorance to running the ball and controlling the clock, and paid for it in the end. In last week’s 62-17 thrashing of Purdue, Wisconsin rushed the ball 54 times for 364 yards and had the ball for 36 minutes and 43 seconds. Coincidence? Not a chance. It’s become clear that the original Wisconsin formula of pounding the ball and keeping the other team off the field gives them the best chance to win. They should do so against Minnesota to keep the ball out of Gray’s hands as much as possible and take some pressure off the Wisconsin defense and shaky special teams.

The Badger defense played well a week ago, especially considering the bad spots it was put into by the poor special teams play. Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor continue to be the heart and soul of the defense, and make plays all over the field. They will have to contain Gray when he tries to get out of the pocket, and a continued pass rush from the defensive line will be helpful as well. As for the special teams that everyone is so down on for good reason, they need to show improvement in this game or there will be no trusting them for the rest of the season. Minnesota’s Marcus Jones has a kick return for touchdown on the season and averages close to 30 yards a return. He will be a test for the Wisconsin kick coverage and if the special teams as a whole can’t prove to be reliable in this game, the Badger offense might have more freedom to go for it on fourth downs. That might be fun to see but it’s not what great teams do, and winning the field position battle will be necessary in Saturday’s game.

Prediction 

The Badgers got back on track last week with a dominating win over Purdue. They still haven’t proven anything on the road, but the Gophers have been terrible at times this season– the low point coming in a loss to North Dakota State. Minnesota has shown promise in its last two games and Marqueis Gray gives the offense a chance to put up some points. But the Wisconsin running game will be too much for the Gophers, and Wisconsin will control the ball long enough to keep its special teams from messing up the game.

Badgers win, 52-20.

This article first appeared on isportsweb.com and was syndicated with permission.

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