Wisconsin running back Montee Ball is seven touchdowns away from setting the NCAA career touchdowns record.
The way the Gophers have defended the run lately, he might break the record Saturday.
Reeling after two straight Big Ten losses, Minnesota (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) will travel to always-hostile Camp Randall Stadium for a date with the Badgers (5-2, 2-1) this weekend.
The Gophers have allowed more than 180 yards rushing in each of the past two games and have struggled to stop the run all season. Iowa running back Mark Weisman lit up Minnesota’s defense for 177 yards, and last week Northwestern tailback Venric Mark ran for 182 yards.
Slowing down Ball is an even tougher task.
Ball, the conference’s second-leading rusher (816 yards), ran for a career-high 247 yards in the Badgers’ 38-14 win over Purdue on Saturday.
Last season, Ball ran for 1,923 yards and scored an NCAA-record 39 touchdowns. He ran for 166 yards and had three scores when Wisconsin beat the Gophers 42-13 last year at TCF Bank Stadium.
Minnesota linebacker Mike Rallis said poor execution is the root of the run defense’s problems.
“We’ve already watched a film on [Ball],” Rallis said. “We’ve got to play good assignment football. Everybody’s got to do their job.”
In Big Ten play, Minnesota hasn’t looked anything like the team that went undefeated in its nonconference schedule. The Gophers have struggled to rush the passer, create turnovers and generate offense. They did all of those things consistently during nonconference play.
Meanwhile, the Badgers, who struggled in nonconference play, are just now finding their sea legs.
They squeaked by lower-tier opponent Northern Iowa, lost at Oregon State and barely survived at home against Utah State.
Since then, Wisconsin is 4-1, with its only loss coming in a 30-27 nailbiter to Nebraska in Lincoln.
Ball is back on track now, too. The 5-foot-11-inch senior is averaging more than 150 yards per game in Big Ten play and has scored eight touchdowns in three conference games this season.
“That’s just who they are. I think Wisconsin didn’t get where they’ve been [in recent years] without having identity,” Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said. “Their identity is running the football.”
Right now, Minnesota’s identity is a team that can’t stop the run, especially in the first half.
Both Weisman and Mark had monster first halves — they had more than 140 first-half yards apiece. Kill said poor play early in games is the bigger concern than defending the run.
“When … something bad happens, that’s where one side of the ball or the other has got to step it up,” Kill said.
Defensively, Minnesota has stepped it up in second halves. The Gophers allowed 45 combined first-half points and seven combined second-half points in their past two games.
“In the second half, we were an entirely different team in both games,” Minnesota safety Brock Vereen said. “The last two games our opponent was just more ready than us in the first half.”
Several key Gophers are crippled with injuries, Kill said.
Kill said starting left tackle Ed Olson is “very questionable and probably won’t play,” and quarterback MarQueis Gray is a “question mark” as well.
Wide receivers Isaac Fruechte, Marcus Jones and Devin Crawford-Tufts — who all see regular playing time — are also questionable, Kill said. That could mean an expanded role for A.J. Barker and true freshman Andre McDonald.
“Now that we’re two games into the Big Ten, I feel more comfortable playing,” said Barker, the team leader in all major receiving categories. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to rotate a lot of guys in there.”