November 23, 2013

RIVALS on RIVALRY: Top 10 MIN-WIS Matchups (Pt. 2)

(PART 2 of 2: Gopher Illustrated's Joe Perovich and BadgerBlitz's John Veldhuis collaborate and discuss the critical match-ups to watch in the Gophers-Badgers Nov. 23 game. Neither saw the other's breakdown until after the article was published.)

Wisconsin's 3-4 Defense vs. Minnesota Offense

Joe Perovich (@JoePerovichGI):

The Big Ten opponents on the Gophers' schedule to this point have played primarily 4-3 defenses, but the rivals to the East will not be keeping the status quo when Saturday arrives.

Out with the old and in with the new. When Gary Andersen was hired after the 2012 season he retained Chris Ash, and a fresh start was the launch of a fresh defense. To kick off the new era, Wisconsin's base set defense changed to the 3-4 at the beginning of 2013. To the delight of everyone engrossed in Wisconsin football and apprehensive about the facelift, the worries were relieved in no time.

Currently, the Badgers defense is ranked second in the conference, and when push comes to shove Philip Nelson's ability to carry his momentum (since September ended: 7 TDs, 0 INT, 484 yards) to a match-up where exotic blitzes and a variety of coverage schemes will be imperative. The 3-4 has a purpose, and it's confusion. Teams that use it can put a LB on the line of scrimmage for the mirage of 4-3, or they can drop a LB back in coverage for the purpose of confusing opposing QBs. It's important to note that the Gophers lost their starting center Jon Christenson for the year at Indiana a few weeks ago, and his loss might be most apparent in a game such as this with the Gophers adjusting to a defense they haven't seen yet.

The sophomore Nelson hasn't seen a mountain too steep to climb in the past two months. I believe he has matured enough in the season's second half to recognize the direction his team tends to go when there are no turnovers through the air. Can he handle the foreign 3-4? His hometown Mankato, MN is already hoarse from their outcries of optimism. I share their opinion.

Verdict: Minnesota Offense

John Veldhuis (@JohnVeldhuis):

Minnesota's offense has seen a noticeable uptick in production: they've moved up to 63rd place from 79th last year in Football Outsiders' drive efficiency rating, and have jumped up to 70th from 83rd last year in Outsiders' S&P+ metric, which measures per-play efficiency, among other things.

The problem for the Gophers is that the 3-4 defense has helped the Badgers step up their own game: they're fifth in the nation in points allowed per game, and hold opponents to just 3.09 yards per carry as a whole. That could spell trouble for a Minnesota team that runs the ball on over 70 percent of their plays. If the Badgers keep Minnesota's run game under control, I like their chances if they can force the Gophers to take to the air.

To do that they'll have to keep Minnesota to short gains on both first and second down, which would force them into obvious passing situations- another area where the Badgers have thrived. Football Outsiders has the Badgers as the fourth-best team in the country when it comes to defending obvious passing downs, and Philip Nelson in particular is completing just 58.2 percent of his passes on 3rd downs.

Verdict: Wisconsin

Gophers' RB David Cobb vs. Wisconsin LB Chris Borland

Joe Perovich:

Wisconsin's leader in tackles, tackles for losses, and sacks will bring his No. 3 ranked Big Ten rush defense to TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday to knock heads with an emerging Gopher half back. The Badgers leader-in-pretty-much-every-category-imaginable Chris Borland is a senior LB who has played his biggest in games that have called for big performances.

In a 24-31 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 28th, Borland recorded 16 total tackles (10 solo). This was on the heels of a spectacular performance two weeks earlier at Arizona State (a perplexing ending, look it up) where he produced another double-digit tackle output of 10 totals, seven solos, one sack, and a cementing dagger of his importance to the Badgers: a 23-yard pass completion late in the fourth quarter on a 4th & 5 play that eventually led to a Wisconsin touchdown later in the drive.

David Cobb has yet to see a defense like Wisconsin's, but he also can't make the schedule. You're supposed to run over the bad and mediocre rush defenses (PSU 6th, Nebraska 8th, Northwestern 9th, Indiana 11th), and that's all he has really been given the chance to do. Cobb's production comes not from the lack of quality in his opponents, but from an increased and overdue workload.

100 yards versus an average rush defense is an arguable illusion, but David Cobb is averaging 155 yards a game in his last three performances.

Verdict: Tie

John Veldhuis:

Cobb has surprised many pundits by rushing for 942 yards through 10 games at 5.38 yards per carry, but I see this as a mismatch in Wisconsin's favor. The Badgers have held their conference foe's featured running backs to just 3.45 yards per carry, and Borland has been a big part of that. His good instincts allow him to read developing plays well and hit the ball carrier hard, and he's got the quickness to eat up the grass between himself and a ball carrier before they can get a off a move to try and shake him.

As a caveat, Borland has been hurt at times this year- and if he should miss much time for the Badgers their defense hasn't been quite as intimidating. He'll need the defensive line to occupy blockers to have the same kind of impact in the pass rush, but Borland's athletic enough to make some big plays on his own as well.

Verdict: Borland

Hageman/Gophers Rush D vs. Gordon & White

Joe Perovich:

Looking for something to key in on when watching the Gophers-Badgers game on Saturday? You've seen the horde of appetizers; now let me welcome you to the entrée.

Ra'Shede Hageman doesn't blow up box scores in 2013, but his team benefits from the lack of that when it comes to the win column. Here's why: It's amazing that his stats look as tremendous as they do when he is facing double teams on around 90% of downs. When two offensive linemen are isolated on Hageman, the rest of the defense is freed up and has the ability to roam against an advantageous mismatch.

It opens up so much for the other 10 players, and a vital component to their improvement this season has been opposing offensive line's focus on putting multiple blockers onto the body of Hageman.

I referenced the eye-popping big play ability of Wisconsin's RB's Gordon and White in the "Wisconsin Big Play Offense vs. Minnesota Big Play Defense" portion, but to stay within the same theme: lets not fool ourselves into getting used to the fact that Wisconsin has not just one, but TWO rushers in the Top 3 of Big Ten Conference Rushing Leaders.

The only person ahead of both Melvin Gordon and James White is Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, but after him it's the sophomore Gordon as No. 2, and the senior White barely behind at No. 3. The bar for running back duos has been securely set for a long time to come.

Verdict: Gordon and White

John Veldhuis:

The Badgers have easily the best rushing attack that the Gophers will have seen this season so far: Gordon and White are averaging 7.55 yards per carry combined, and the Badgers do a good job of rotating them in way where keying on one of them opens up running lanes for the other.

The Gophers and Hageman will have to close running lanes quickly to keep either player in check, but they haven't performed very well against the run recently: Minnesota has allowed 5.42 yards per carry over their last four games, so they'll need to step up their game a notch. Otherwise I think this is a big advantage for the Badgers, who have rushed for an average of 7.15 yards per carry over their last three games against Iowa, BYU, and Indiana.

Verdict: Gordon and White

Minnesota big play offense vs. Wisconsin big play defense

Joe Perovich:

Running back David Cobb has improved the Gophers' big play chances with his recent emergence. He doesn't break off as many big runs as the Wisconsin duo (James White has been much better in this category at home), but he's nearly on par with both in terms of running plays that have gone between 30 & 50 yards.

Minnesota has lost their senior WR Derrick Engel for what might be some extended time, so the majority of the duty will fall on Philip Nelson's favorite target, freshman TE Maxx Williams (3 touchdowns in his last five games). Maxx will need help from two particular freshmen wide-outs that have to step up and fill the Engel void, Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky. Gophers' head coach Jerry Kill noted during his Tuesday press conference that he believes both have flown under the radar and are ready.

While Minnesota's methodical style of play has worked, they haven't been explosive. Wisconsin has allowed just five plays to go for over 40 yards in this season, and they are extremely efficient at keeping offenses within a 10-yard zone. Look for Wisconsin's 5'9" standout Sojourn Shelton roaming the field on Saturday. He's tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions, and it's certainly not a fluke.

Verdict: Wisconsin Big Play Defense

John Veldhuis:

The Gophers haven't been a deep-shot kind of team this year, and it's worked to their advantage. They grind teams out and try to win the time of possession battle, so Wisconsin's going to have to win in the trenches on most downs if they want to keep the Gophers from running their offense the way they want to try and force a few punts out of them and give the ball back to their offense.

The Badgers have done a nice job of preventing big plays this year, but that won't matter as much if the Gophers keep converting on third down. The Badgers have some experience in this kind of trench war dating back to their game against Iowa, so I'm giving them a slight edge here.

Verdict: Wisconsin Big Play Defense

Wisconsin's Gary Andersen vs. Gophers' Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys

Joe Perovich:

Telling a Gopher football fan at the beginning of this season that their team would win 8 games would have been met with a reply in the ballpark of, "Great, so we won our bowl game even!"

An improved season was an expectation, but officials from bowls like the Gator and Capital One releasing statements such as "we are certainly watching the Gophers closely" is essentially too many cherries on top to know there's a sundae somewhere beneath.

Jerry Kill is past unique. There's a certain charisma about him that keeps the players engaged and selfless, displaying a willingness to listen to any coach that takes the sideline even if the guy that recruited them is out of sight and up in the booth. Some coaches just have those indefinable qualities, and Coach Kill is one of them.

Gary Andresen is a defensive-minded coach that fast-forwarded the transition process that most 3-4 switches endure, and is now 8-2 in his first season as the Wisconsin head football coach. Andersen is a benefactor all who he comes in contact with, expressing a clear bond with his players, past and present. In fact, when Andersen left the role of head coach at Utah State after their 11-2 season in 2012, he called every one of Utah St. players individually to inform them of his decision to move on and start a new journey at the University of Wisconsin.

Simple decision, and the only correct one.

Verdict: Tie

John Veldhuis:

This one is a little difficult to dissect, because we really haven't seen Andersen tested when it comes to in-game coaching situations. The one big thing you could criticize would be the end of the Arizona State game, where they had Joel Stave take a knee to center the ball instead of kicking from the right hash mark. That wouldn't have been an issue if the Pac-12 officials hadn't made a mistake and spotted the ball in time, but it's really all we have to pick at so far. When it comes to Claeys and Jerry Kill I think they have some major intangibles going for them, so in the absence of many controversial coaching decisions on either side I think the intangibles give the Gophers and edge here.

Verdict: Claeys & Kill

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