A border is about all that separates the style of rushing offenses Wisconsin and Minnesota are trying to achieve.
That, and the amount of success each team has found.
Wisconsin ranks 13th in the nation in rushing yards, with 239 per game, while the Gophers' newfound mantra of establishing the run has gotten them just 166 yards per game.
But the Minnesota running game has shown some signs of brilliance at times this season. In their first and only win of the season against Middle Tennessee State, the Gophers ran 67 times for 281 yards, hogging the ball for three-fourths of the game. Partly thanks to that performance, the Gophers are still second in the nation in time of possession.
Last week, their final scoring drive of the game consisted of 10 straight runs, opening up the play-action touchdown pass to tight end Eric Lair.
“You saw our play action pass was really good against Northwestern because we were able to run the ball with some success,” Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster said. “Both teams, I think, identify with each other that way.”
Wisconsin running back John Clay ran all over the Gophers last year, picking up 184 yards on 32 carries. The past two weekends have also seen the emergence of Badgers freshman James White, who is averaging 8.3 yards per carry this season.
Badgers running backs coach John Settle has even gone so far as to say that the two are in a competition for the starting job.
Like Wisconsin, the Gophers have the luxury of having more than one viable running back with juniors DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett as well as freshman Donnell Kirkwood. Each one, depending on who has the hot hand, has a chance to carry the load in a given game.
With Eskridge’s 119 yards against Northwestern last week, the Gophers became one of three teams in the Big Ten to have two running backs to have a 100-yard rushing game this season.
“The running back probably gets beat up more than anybody,” Minnesota co-offensive coordinator Jeff Horton said. “When you’re constantly pounding the ball…I think it’s crucial that you have two or three guys you can depend on.”
Minnesota has had its share of injuries with their running backs so far this year, with Bennett aggravating an ankle injury that hobbled him last season, and Kirkwood’s leg injury that could sideline him Saturday. Kirkwood didn’t have any carries against Northwestern.
Horton said Wisconsin’s success running the football is something the Gophers are striving for, and should make for a run-heavy game Saturday.
“This style, the way we’re trying to do it, and obviously the way Wisconsin has done it, is [to win] by controlling the football and being a physical running team,” Horton said. “If there wasn’t TV on Saturday the game would probably be over in about an hour.”
The similarity in the running game has helped the Gophers defense to prepare for what they will see out of Wisconsin, rather than the spread offense that Northwestern ran.
Minnesota made room for stronger, more physical players in its secondary to counter the Wisconsin power-rushing attack. Senior Ryan Collado, normally a cornerback, is listed as the backup free safety behind Kyle Theret. Junior Kyle Henderson and sophomore Michael Carter will start cornerback.
But it may not be Wisconsin’s chipping away that dooms the defense.
Big plays have been the bigger plague for the young Minnesota defense this season. Northern Illinois had six rushes of 29 yards or more two weeks ago, and Northwestern’s first two scoring drives took less than three minutes combined.
“We want to make teams earn every point that they get,” Collado said. “Explosive plays definitely hurt us and it’s in our gameplan every week to try to eliminate them.”
The Gophers may have to go against the Badgers without one of their defensive leaders in linebacker Mike Rallis, who is recovering from a pulled stomach muscle. Brewster called his return Saturday “questionable at best.”
A combination of Aaron Hill and Ryan Grant will fill in for Rallis if he is unable to play.
Although the Gophers’ defense may look a bit different than it has in previous weeks, the recipe for a win against Wisconsin remains the same: Rush and stop the rush.
“We need to stop them from getting going and getting a full head of steam,” linebacker Keanon Cooper said. “We have to get them running from sideline to sideline instead of end zone to end zone.”
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