The Gophers football team knows what’s coming Saturday. Now all it has to do is figure a way to stop it.
In Melvin Gordon and James White, Wisconsin features two lightning-quick running backs who operate behind the booming thunder of another mammoth Badgers offensive line.
“I don’t think there’s anything more demeaning than when somebody takes the ball and runs it down your throat, and you can’t stop it,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said.
He thought back to last year, when the Gophers trailed Wisconsin just 14-6 midway through the third quarter.
“And then they just wore us down,” Kill said of the eventual 38-14 loss.
Few teams have slowed Gordon and White this year, and run defense is one area where the Gophers have struggled, even during their four-game winning streak. So Saturday’s showdown at TCF Bank Stadium looms as a major challenge.
Gordon has a career average of 8.51 yards per carry. It’s one thing to do that for a short spurt, but the redshirt sophomore has done it over 238 rushing attempts.
And Gordon hasn’t even been Wisconsin’s leading rusher the past three games. That’s been White, a senior who leads active FBS players in career touchdowns (47) and ranks second in career rushing yardage (3,727).
The Badgers are the only FBS team with two rushers with more than 1,000 yards; as Gordon has 1,306, White 1,156.
Asked if the Badgers have the best rushing tandem in the country, Gophers cornerback Brock Vereen said: “Absolutely, it’s a 1-2 punch. Really it’s a 1-1 punch. Either of them could start just about anywhere.”
And the Badgers have a pretty good No. 3 rusher in freshman Corey Clement, who has rushed for 528 yards — 7.8 per carry — in mop-up duty.
Last week against Indiana, White (205), Gordon (146) and Clement (108) all went over the century mark.
“It’s going to be easy for us to prepare for them because all they do is run the ball,” Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman said. “They’ve got great running backs and a great O-line, so it’s really just a man’s game, and you have to be ready for it.”
The natural temptation for any defensive coordinator against Wisconsin is to stack the box, or bring defensive backs into the linebacker area to create less space for the Badgers to run.
But that leaves teams vulnerable to the play-action pass. Quarterback Joel Stave can fake the handoff, and look for Jared Abbrederis, the Big Ten’s fourth-leading receiver. Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, who plans to enter next year’s NFL draft, was assigned to Abbrederis on Sept. 28, and Abbrederis caught 10 passes for 207 yards.
“He’s awfully good one-on-one,” Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “You watch the film, and he makes plays against everybody. So it’s one of those things that you try to give help [keeping Abbrederis double-covered], but if you’re doing that, and they’re getting 7 yards a carry, they’re not interested in throwing it to him either.”
After the Gophers’ 24-10 victory over Penn State on Nov. 9, Claeys said run defense would be a focal point over the bye week.
Indiana (227 yards) and Penn State (190 yards) both had success running against Minnesota, even though each team likes to pass. Now, here comes a Badgers team that ranks sixth in the nation in rushing, at 307.9 yards per game.
As usual, Wisconsin’s offensive line is filled with behemoths. Nobody in the interior starting five is shorter than 6-5 or lighter than 315 pounds. Right tackle Rob Havenstein is 6-8, 327. Center Dallas Lewallen is 6-6, 322.
This unit was a question mark coming into the season because the Badgers have had seven offensive linemen drafted in the past three years, including five in the first three rounds. But this line hasn’t missed a beat. The Badgers rank third in the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed (12), and the running backs are finding plenty of holes.
Under Kill, the Gophers are determined to establish a power running game of their own and openly admit they hope to emulate Wisconsin’s success.
“I’m not going to lie to you, that’s the template,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “And I hope they take it as a compliment, that we’d like people to say, ‘Boy, Minnesota’s playing the way Wisconsin does.’
“Because last time I checked, they’ve been going to the Rose Bowl just about every year. And they’ve kind of become the standard bearer as far as a power, downhill, put-it-in-your-face football team. And that’s what we want to be.”
The Gophers listed wide receiver Derrick Engel as questionable on Thursday’s injury report. He’s listed as a possible punt returner but isn’t among the receivers on the two-deep roster for the Wisconsin game. Engel suffered a knee injury in Sunday’s practice.