MADISON, WIS. – Wisconsin entered Saturday’s game with the Big Ten’s best run defense and the nation’s No. 5 scoring defense.
But Gophers offensive coordinator Jay Johnson came up with an effective strategy that led to 17 first-half points.
Minnesota outgained the Badgers 133-29 in the first quarter, and 80 of those Gophers yards came on the ground.
Wisconsin’s defense came in averaging just 98.3 rushing yards per game, so this was a surprising development. Mitch Leidner had 55 rushing yards in the first quarter, including a 32-yard jaunt on a read-option keeper.
But the Badgers clamped down after the first quarter, holding the Gophers to 48 yards rushing over the final three quarters. Leidner finished with 16 carries for 46 yards, which included 32 lost yards on five sacks.
Rodney Smith had 13 carries for 45 yards, and Shannon Brooks added nine carries for 37 yards.
“Any time you don’t have a good combination [of rushing and passing], it’s going to hurt you,” senior receiver Drew Wolitarsky said. “If you can’t run, they’re just going to send more defensive backs, and you’re not going to be able to pass.”
Team banquet ahead
The Gophers will hold their annual team banquet Sunday, handing out the Bronko Nagurski Award (MVP) and other team awards.
Entering Saturday, Smith seemed like a good bet to win the Bruce Smith Award (outstanding offensive player), while candidates for the Carl Eller Award (outstanding defensive player) included Damarius Travis, Steven Richardson, Jonathan Celestin and Jack Lynn.
The banquet is also the event where the Gophers captains pass the torch to the following year’s captains. This year’s captains have been Travis, Lynn, Mitch Leidner and Brandon Lingen.
Hitting recruiting trail
After the banquet, Gophers coach Tracy Claeys will head out of town for recruiting.
The Gophers have 14 commitments for their 2017 class, highlighted by a pair of three-star in-state offensive linemen — Marshall’s Blaise Andries and Robbinsdale Cooper’s Eric Abojei.
They’ll still be able to add about nine more players before national signing day on Feb. 1. In their latest recruiting rankings, the Gophers were ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten by Scout.com and 247Sports.com, and 14th by Rivals.com.
Rivals.com had Keelon Brookins rated as a four-star recruit coming out of Tartan in 2013, and after originally committing to the Gophers, he flipped to Wisconsin.
Brookins was a defensive back and top sprinter in high school. But he tore the ACL in his left knee before his junior year at Tartan and then tore the ACL in his right knee during his senior season.
Brookins has had a limited role with the Badgers, with five tackles in 27 career games entering Saturday. He has worked at safety and linebacker, with most of his game action coming on special teams.
He is a redshirt junior, but he was honored Saturday as part of Senior Day. A standout student, he will be graduating this fall, and this also could mark the end of his football career.
Senior wide receiver Robert Wheelwright also played his final home game for the Badgers. His brother, Ernie, played for the Gophers from 2004-2007.
The family hails from Columbus, Ohio. Ernie made plans to attend Saturday’s game, but Robert joked that he wouldn’t get him a ticket if he didn’t wear red.
• With Vincent Calhoun hobbled, the Gophers used Connor Mayes at right guard, with Garrison Wright moving to left guard after playing the previous three games at right guard.
• Gophers kicker Emmit Carpenter had a field goal and two extra points, giving him 104 points for the season. The team’s single-season record for kick scoring is held by Dan Nystrom, who had 109 points in 2000.