Each week here in the Golden Gopher Football blog, I chat with a beat writer or member of the media who covers the opponent and we publish that interview in a Q&A format here. This week, Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal and madison.com was kind enough to give us a few minutes. Here's that interview ...
GopherSports.com: What's the buzz around the Badgers, after such a dominating performance last week?
Tom Mulhern: Relief, mostly. The previous two losses on last-second touchdown passes were agonizing for fans and players alike. The dominating win at Purdue gets them back on track. Next up: winning on the road in the Big Ten.
GopherSports.com: Wisconsin has held Paul Bunyan's Axe for seven years. None of the Badger players have ever lost to Minnesota. How do they view the game and the rivalry?
Tom Mulhern: It's important to the players because the coaches make a big deal out of it. The coaches start talking about the axe going all the way back to January, when the team first gathers after taking a few weeks off after the bowl game. The axe is on the field for all of the practices this week. Players usually touch it on their way to the locker room. Each year, UW coach Bret Bielema has a guest speaker give a presentation about the rivalry. This year, it was defensive graduate assistant Ben Strickland, who recovered the blocked punt in the end zone for the winning touchdown in 2005.
GopherSports.com: Does Minnesota's performance at Michigan State, a place where Wisconsin also lost a close game, grab the Badgers' attention?
Tom Mulhern: Without question. I think beating Iowa, then taking the Spartans into the fourth quarter in consecutive weeks means the coaches won't have to work hard at all to get the players' attention this week.
GopherSports.com: Who/what has Wisconsin's attention when it comes to Minnesota?
Tom Mulhern: Well, MarQueis Gray and Da'Jon McKnight for starters. The Badgers have faced a lot of dual-threat quarterbacks this season, with mixed results. They did a great job against Nebraska's Taylor Martinez (61 rushing yards) and not so great against Ohio State's Braxton Miller (99 rushing yards, 2 TDs). McKnight certainly looked like one of the best receivers in the Big Ten last week. The Badgers rank second in the Big Ten in pass defense but those late breakdowns in the two losses remain a huge concern. The fifth-year players, like safety Aaron Henry, remember Kim Royston, who last played at UW in 2007. The younger UW players probably know Royston because he shows up a lot on film, making tackles.
GopherSports.com: Minnesota fans are certainly aware of Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and Nick Toon. Who are some under-the-radar Badgers who are making big contributions?
Tom Mulhern: Tight end Jacob Pedersen is a big threat in the red zone (team-high seven TDs). Fullback Bradie Ewing is a tough blocker and a receiving threat (13-194). The defense prides itself on being a bunch of no names, but LBs Mike Taylor and Chris Borland are tied for the Big Ten lead in tackles and CB Antonio Fenelus might be playing as well as anybody in the conference at his position.
GopherSports.com: Are there any position matchups or game-within-a-game situations that you're particularly interested to see this week?
Tom Mulhern: To me, it's all about the run game. UW has averaged 223.7 rushing yards and 46.9 attempts in the seven-game winning streak over the Gophers. How will Minnesota's defense defend that, while also slowing the play-action passing game that has been such a huge part of quarterback Russell Wilson's success?
GopherSports.com: How does Wisconsin win the game?
Tom Mulhern: Stay away from momentum-swinging big plays allowed on special teams, which were huge factors in road losses at Michigan State and Ohio State. Run the ball at least 40 times and continue to avoid turnovers (only six lost all year). On defense, keep Gray contained and limit big plays.
GopherSports.com: How does Minnesota win the game?
Tom Mulhern: The strategy has to be to control the ball on offense, to keep UW's offense off the field. Wisconsin ranks fourth in the Big Ten in time of possession (31:00), so it has not held the ball as much as recent years. If the Gophers can come up with a couple big plays -- either on offense or special teams -- they can ride the momentum of the home crowd and win the game with the help of a late onside kick. Worked before, right?