We are getting closer and closer to the start of the 2014 Gopher Football season! We here at The Daily Gopher will continue our quick previews of the Gophers opponents. We have finally reached the end of our journey. The last regular season game of the year is upon us, and we all get to take a trip to that special place to the east and preview the Wisconsin Badgers.
Location: Madison, Wisconsin
Conference: Big Ten (West Division)
Notable Alumni: Dale Chihuly, Joan Cusak, Boz Skags, Jim Lovell, Andy Katz, Phil Hellmuth, Ron Dayne, Bud Selig, Chris Chelios, Harry Craine
Bill Connelly Preview Link: Here!
Wisconsin had a fairly good season in Gary Andersen's first year at the helm. The Badgers started off the season 2-0 before traveling to Tempe and a game against Arizona State. In a game that gave schadenfreude to pretty much every single Gopher fan, Wisconsin ended up losing. Like this:
The Badgers split their next two games, beating Purdue and losing to Ohio State before running off six straight wins including a victory over Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium. The end of the season didn't go so well as the Badgers lost a shocker at home to Penn State and then dropped the Capitol One Bowl to South Carolina after Joel Stave was injured and Curt Phillips looked lost. The Badger offense was strong finishing the season 27th in the country, but the defense was even more impressive, finishing 6th in the nation.
Wisconsin has had a series of great running backs in the recent past, and James White was no exception. He has moved onto the NFL after running for 1,444 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013. He also added 39 catches for 300 yards out of the backfield. Wisconsin will be looking for several new pass catchers. Their top two wide receivers Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Duckworth have moved along as has tight end Jacob Pedersen. That trio along with White caught over 80% of the passes completed by Wisconsin in 2013. Big Ten 1st Team left guard Ryan Groy has moved on to the NFL as well.
Defensively, the Badgers will have to replace some cogs on their defensive line. Pat Muldoon, Beau Allen and Tyler Dippel all have moved on leaving some sizable holes to fill. Wisconsin also loses its top four linebackers from 2013 including stud Chris Borland. Borland led the team in tackles with 91.5 and also had 8.5 for a loss. In the secondary, safety Dezmen Southward us gone after 33 tackles and a team leading five pass breakups in 2013.
Offensively, the Badgers will still be in good shape up the middle. Quarterback Joel Stave returns for his junior season after throwing for 2494 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2013. But, he also threw 15 interceptions. Stave has supposedly looked very good this fall, but he will need to show it with a new crop of receivers in games that really count. *** EDIT Or else maybe it will be Tanner McEvoy throwing most of the passes. According to an article breaking right before this was published, McEvoy is set to start against LSU. McEvoy is a redshirt junior who transferred into Wisconsin from Arizona Western College. He played most of the season last year as a safety. Additionally, unlike Stave who is much more of a pocket passer, McEvoy is much more of a mobile quarterback, willing to run if needed. *** Of course most Badgers fans hope he never has to throw the ball at all. They would rather he just hand the ball off the a duo of strong returning running backs. Melvin Gordon led the Badgers with 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. He has been named to several preseason All-American teams and will be one of the best running backs in the country if he can live up to the hype. He will be spelled in the backfield by Corey Clement who as a freshman and the third running back a year ago ran for 547 yards and seven touchdowns. Wisconsin also returns four of their top five offensive linemen from 2013, which should help the run game.
Bill C's Wisdom and Statistical Wizardy
Bill C's Wisdom and Statistical Wizardy
Defensively, the remaining body in the middle for Wisconsin will be one time Gopher recruit and now Badger junior Konrad Zagzebski. He played in a rotation last season, but will play a large role in the middle of the Badger defensive line in 2014. The Badgers should be strong in the secondary with three starters returning. Sojurn Shelton led the team with four interceptions in 2013, and will be joined with Micheal Caputo and Darius Hillary in trying to shut down the passing attack of their opponents.
The first question mark will be if the defense can play up to the level it did in 2013? Its unlikely looking at the quality of players who left the program, but if they can plug holes they still should be a quality defense. They have talent in the secondary, but will need to have some players step up along the D-line and linebackers if they want to make a statement in the Big Ten.
Secondly, will Joel Stave be able to make teams have to take him credibly, or will teams play eight men in the box to stop Gordon and Clement. If Stave shows he can complete passes consistently with a new set of receivers, then teams may have to fear that he can beat them if they want to key in on the run. Gordon is by far the biggest threat of the Badger offense, and teams will definitely try and stop him and make Stave beat them.
Thirdly, will the Badgers be able to run through arguably the easiest schedule in the Big Ten and make it back to Indianapolis? Only Iowa can say they may have an easier schedule, or at least Big Ten schedule. Wisconsin will be tested early starting with a game against LSU in Houston, but if they win there is absolutely no reason they should not be 9-0 going into their last three games. Those three games will determine who goes to Indianapolis from the west as they host Nebraska, go to Iowa, and then finish the season hosting Minnesota. If Wisconsin can go 2-1 in those games, Barry Alvarez can make those reservations for St. Elmo's.
What Does It All Mean For Minnesota?
The Gophers really,really,really would like to win the Axe back one of these years. It's been a long stretch of Badger superiority, some due to their success, and some due to Gopher ineptitude. However, the Badgers in their current form aren't the best match up for the current Gopher squad. The Gophers will need to stop the run. First and foremost if they can't do that, then Gopher fans in Madison might as well just head back to the tailgate or bar. If they can slow down Gordon and Clement, they will need to take advantage of Stave's mistakes. If the line can get pressure and the secondary can take advantage of the young Badger receivers, they can hold their own on defense. But there are a lot of ifs. Defensively, the Badgers have holes up the middle. That does bode well for the Gophers own rushing attack. However, since it is the last game of the regular season, the new players excuse won't cut it anymore. Both teams will know exactly what they have, there will be no surprises. Which ever team can run the ball better than the other will probably win this game. On paper, that advantage stays with Wisconsin.
As a fan, I really want to say this is the year the Gophers finally win the Axe back. But as a prognosticator, I can't in good conscience say that. The combination of the Badgers powerful rushing attack, plus the location of the game in Camp Randall where Minnesota has not won since 1994 is not a positive for Minnesota. It is the last game of the season, so things may be completely different then how we see them now, but we don't get to make predictions then, we need to do them now. As things stay now, I have to pick Wisconsin in a close game, but they just are still slightly better then the Gophers. Badgers win 31-23.