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October 19, 2012

All-Out Blitz: Minnesota



Welcome to this week's "All-Out Blitz," where you'll find everything that you need to know about the Badgers' next opponent. This week the Badgers will battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers for Paul Bunyan's Axe, and will try to extend their winning streak to nine games. A nine-game streak would tie the longest ever in the rivalry, which was set by the Gophers from 1933-1941.

All Out Blitz: Minnesota

What you need to know about Minnesota

Head coach: Jerry Kill (2nd season @ Minnesota), 7-11 (2-8 Big Ten)
Minnesota All-Time Record: 653-482-44 (.573)
2012 Record: 4-2 (0-2 Big Ten)
Ranking: NR (AP), NR (Coaches Poll)
All-Time record against Wisconsin: 59-54-8 (122nd meeting)

Did you read this?

Know Thy Foe: Minnesota
Beat writer preview: Minnesota

Last year

When Jerry Kill arrived in Minnesota, he didn't come preaching about Rose Bowls and Big Ten Championships. He knew there was work to be done, and was pretty clear about it. The Gophers managed just 15 wins under Tim Brewster, and he left behind a program that was relatively undisciplined and unprepared for the rigors of Big Ten play. So Kill's first year was more about clearing out some rubble to put a foundation in later, rather than getting right back to bowl eligibility and out of the Big Ten basement.

That being said, the Gophers still went through their fair share of hard times last year. Lowlights included upset losses to New Mexico State and FCS North Dakota State at home in TCF Bank Stadium, a 58-0 blow out loss to Michigan, and other lopsided losses to Purdue, Nebraska and Wisconsin. But there were good signs at the end of the year, including a second-straight win over Iowa and an upset of a reeling Illinois team at home. The Gophers finished the year at 3-9, but felt a little better about their program heading into 2012.

Season outlook

After Kill's first season, it looked like six wins and a lower-tier bowl game might be the high water mark for the Gophers this year. Their schedule was set up for it rather well- their non-conference slate featured games with UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse, which is a lot better than facing USC out on the road. IF the Gophers could run the table in their non-conference slate, they would need to eke out just two wins in Big Ten play to head back to the postseason. It wasn't much in relative terms, but a bowl berth would mean a lot to the Gophers in Kill's second year at the helm.

This year

The Gophers needed to run the table in their non-conference schedule, and that's just what they did. Kill's team showed improvement on both offense and defense, and headed into their annual rivalry game with Iowa with a little bit of confidence. However, the Hawkeyes exposed the Gophers on defense and took Floyd of Rosedale back after a 31-13 win. The Gophers followed that up with a close loss to Northwestern at home, where they turned the ball over three times. Both teams averaged about 195 yards on the ground against the Gophers, and an injury to quarterback MarQueis Gray hampered the offense in both games.

When he's been on the field, Gray has shown improvement from last season. The redshirt senior quarterback is completing 60 percent of his passes this season, but he's thrown the ball more than 11 times just once so far this season. An ankle injury forced him to miss games against Syracuse and Iowa, and he played for a little while against Northwestern before he re-injured his ankle. Gray's status for the rivalry game is up in the air, but if he does play against the Badgers, it sounds like he'll line up as a wide receiver. Gray had 42 catches and five touchdowns as a receiver last season, but it remains to be seen how much his ankle injury will hold him back.

If Gray doesn't start at quarterback, sophomore Max Shortell will get the nod. Shortell played in eight games last season and completed just 48.1 percent of his passes, but that number has ticked up a little to 54.8 percent against FBS teams this year. Where Gray is a dual-threat under center, Shortell is a more traditional pocket passer. He has six touchdowns this season, but threw three interceptions against Iowa. Shortell was a little banged up last week too, but the Gophers expect him to play Saturday.

Sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood has gotten most of the carries for the Gophers this season. Kirkwood has 466 yards through six games this season, but the 5-foot-10 back is averaging just over 68 yards per game against FBS teams and just 52 yards per game in Big Ten play. Gray is also a running threat and 320 yards and three touchdowns on the ground this season, but his ankle injury could limit his effectiveness as a runner too.

Junior A.J. Barker is Minnesota's best wide receiver, and already has 22 catches for 406 yards this season. The 6-foot-1 Barker also has four touchdowns this season, but three of those came against Western Michigan. Barker hasn't found the endzone since then, but he has 12 catches in three games against FBS teams. Senior tight end John Rabe had a strong non-conference season with three receiving touchdowns, but he's caught just one pass for eight yards in two Big Ten games.

The Gophers are also much improved on defense this season, at least on paper. They're allowing just less than 20 points per game this year, which is a significant improvement from their 2011 mark of 31.7 points per game. They haven't faced any top-flight offenses, but they've taken care of business (for the most part) against teams that might have blown them out last year, and that's a good start for Kill's team.

The Gophers also have some semblance of a pass rush this season. Through six games the Gophers have 11 sacks, and need just eight more to tie their mark of 19 from last season. Senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite leads the team with 4.5 sacks this season, and nose tackle Ra'Shede Hageman has three sacks in his first season as a starter. However, the Gophers haven't recorded a sack in either of their two Big Ten games.

The pass defense has also shown improvement as well. The Gophers are allowing their opponents just 162.5 yards per game through the air this season, compared to 216.7 last year. Opponents are completing just 56.2 percent of their passes against the Gophers, but FBS opponents have completed 63.2 percent of their passes against Minnesota's defense.

Matchup to watch: Montee Ball vs. Minnesota's rush defense

By any measure, Montee Ball had a fantastic game last week against the Purdue Boilermakers. Ball rushed for 247 yards against what was supposed to be a stout defensive line, but he and Wisconsin's offensive line really had their way and started to click for a whole game for the first time this season.

They'll look to keep that momentum going against a Minnesota team that allows 4.54 yards per attempt, and a Gopher defense that's been gashed on the ground in their first two Big Ten games of the season. Even for an improved defense, it's a matchup problem that the Badgers will definitely try to exploit. If they can get Ball going early, they'll be able to open up the passing game a little more in the second half if the Gophers sell out to stop Ball and Wisconsin's ground game.

The pick: Wisconsin 38 Minnesota 17

This game definitely looked like a tricky one back in September, when the Badgers were dormant on offense and the Gophers were rolling through their non-conference schedule. But it's amazing how moving into conference play can shift perceptions. The Gophers have to deal with a big matchup problem against Wisconsin's running game, and their offense hasn't been as explosive without Gray under center.

A few other key injuries might hamper the Gophers on Saturday too, since they'll be missing their starting left tackle and a few other contributors are questionable. Balls can bounce in funny ways during rivalry games, and these two teams will leave it all out on the field for Paul Bunyan's Axe. But all of the above factors point to a ninth-straight win in the series for the Badgers.

The point after:

Look to see if Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen and Minnesota left guard Jon Christenson ever line up opposite each other during the game. The pair played on the same team at Minnetonka, Minn., High School.

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


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