ADVERTISEMENT

Wisconsin’s Montee Ball struggled to gain yards against Nebraska and other early opponents, but his past two games included 116 yards rushing against Illinois and 247 more against Purdue.

Dave Weaver, Associated Press

Badgers prove that time heals

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • October 20, 2012 - 12:17 AM

Since football schedules have so exasperated Minnesota fans this week, here's one more complaint: Why couldn't the Gophers face Wisconsin three weeks ago?

The Badgers were staggering back then, seemingly teetering on a disastrous season, 3-2 and with a home-field loss to Utah State averted only when a game-winning field goal faded right. Wisconsin's proud running game was a joke, the Big Ten's worst, and Montee Ball's Heisman candidacy abandoned. The offensive line coach was fired, the quarterback was benched midgame, and a Leaders Division title all but handed to them was in jeopardy.

The Gophers, meanwhile, entered that day unbeaten, confident, soaring. Their defense was the only one in the country that had not allowed a 30-yard play, they were receiving votes in the USA Today coaches' poll, and bowl eligibility appeared all but certain.

Seems so long ago, doesn't it?

The most-played rivalry in college football on Saturday will pit a couple of teams whose fortunes have been reversed by their past two Big Ten games. On paper, the Battle for the Axe has reverted to the form that kept the iconic trophy in Madison for eight straight years.

"They've done a good job of getting themselves straightened out," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "They've got their identity, and they didn't go away from it. They didn't panic."

Nope, and that's probably good advice for the Gophers, too. They have been battered by breakout first-half runs in both of their losses, backpedaling for 177 yards by Iowa's Mark Weisman and 182 by Northwestern's Venric Mark. They fell behind by double digits in both games, a huge hole for a team using a backup quarterback, one that hasn't scored more than 17 points in more than a month.

Now they get Ball, a senior who finished fourth in the voting for last year's Heisman Trophy, and one who rolled up 116 yards to turn around Wisconsin's season against Illinois, then busted out for a career-high 247 yards and three touchdowns in the rain last week at Purdue.

"You have a back who, in my opinion, will be the best back that we've played," Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "He's as good as there is in the Big Ten."

So what changed? How did a rushing game that averaged 126 yards per game entering October gain more yardage in two games that it had in the previous five combined?

The Badgers simply started taking their time, Claeys said.

"You can tell Montee's gotten a lot better. He's more patient, waiting on his blocks," Claeys said. "Earlier in the year, he was trying to force it. He was really quick to the line of scrimmage, jamming it up there. Now he's slowed down, being patient, then hitting seams."

The game will come down to the Gophers' ability to correctly man each gap in Wisconsin's line, and stay there until Ball commits. But despite the ugly first-half numbers, Claeys is encouraged by the fact that the Gophers haven't quit. The defense didn't allow a second-half point in either loss, he points out.

"I see us getting better, I really do. I think we're improving," Claeys said. "We can play good enough defense, in my opinion, so that all the games will be just like the [Northwestern] game -- it comes down to the fourth quarter and whoever can make a play. We're playing good enough defense that we have a chance to win."

© 2014 Star Tribune