Post-half dominance propels Wisconsin, with Minnesota next
By Dave Campbell
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The active pursuit by Wisconsin this season of the program’s first national championship has been spurred by the sheer dominance of the Badgers after halftime.
Minnesota could’ve warned their opponents of that.
The Gophers led the Badgers 17-3 on the road last year at the break and were still up 17-10 early in the fourth quarter, before falling 31-17. Playing at Camp Randall Stadium in 2014, the Gophers were ahead 17-3 in the second quarter and 17-13 at the half before losing 34-24. Minnesota also held first-half leads at home in 2015 and 2013, before Wisconsin flexed its muscles and took over down the stretch to foil those upset bids with double-digit victory margins.
“I think we do a good job as the game goes on, getting a feel of what defenses are doing,” Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said. “The more you can see, the more you’re out there, the better you can be. We just keep fighting.”
An early advantage for the Gophers (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) will clearly be required on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium if they’re going to scramble the College Football Playoff picture and beat the fifth-ranked Badgers (11-0, 8-0, No. 5 CFP) to stop the 13-game losing streak in this recently lopsided series.
That’s not all it’s going to take, either.
They’ll have to somehow slow a Badgers squad that has outscored teams a staggering 212-58 in the second half during this so-far undefeated season. Wisconsin has trailed for a total of only 8:49 in either the third or fourth quarters this year, facing brief deficits against Northwestern and Michigan. The possession time advantage of 208:33 to 121:27 is an average of about 19-11 minutes per game.
“They just wear you down,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said.
The Badgers have won 20 of the last 22 contests for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. There’s hardly a time in that span when this game appeared to be more of a mismatch. The Gophers are coming off their worst loss under Fleck, a 39-0 defeat by Northwestern.
“We just kind of say it’s kind of a nameless, faceless opponent, because no matter who you’re playing, you always want to go out there and play that kind of perfect game,” Badgers linebacker Garret Dooley said. “I think this team is kind of striving for perfection, knowing that we’re never going to actually get there.”
Here are some other angles to game:
Badgers linebacker T.J. Edwards, a Butkus Award finalist who had a season-high 11 tackles, including 21⁄2 for loss, last week against Michigan originally committed to Western Michigan when Fleck was there. Edwards, a fourth-year junior, had 10 tackles, a forced fumble, an interception and a pass breakup in the Cotton Bowl last season in what turned out to be Fleck’s final game coaching the Broncos.
Edwards recalled this week his initial impression of Fleck, when he was a prep star in the Chicago area and Western Michigan came calling.
“That burst of energy is what I remember,” Edwards said. “I’m sure he’s bringing some good stuff and a message that people want to believe in.”
Minnesota and Fleck this week agreed to a one-year contract extension through the 2022 season.
Badgers freshman Jonathan Taylor, who has raced his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation, needs 269 rushing yards over the final three or four games to break Adrian Peterson’s FBS freshman record of 1,925 rushing yards. Boasting an impressive blend of power, speed and agility, Taylor will be lined up across from a Gophers defense that gave up 277 rushing yards to Northwestern last week.
Wisconsin strong safety D’Cota Dixon returned against Michigan after missing two games with a right leg injury. He’s questionable again this week, but the Badgers defense hasn’t weakened without him. They lead the FBS with an average of 79.4 rushing yards allowed per game.
Wisconsin also used Dixon in a three-safety look last week to add another strong tackler to help stem Michigan’s running game without sacrificing a lot in pass coverage. The Badgers could use that package again, facing Minnesota’s run-first offense.
With leading receiver Tyler Johnson out because of a broken wrist, rain falling in the Chicago area and a stout Northwestern defense on the other side, Gophers quarterback Demry Croft completed his first two passes for 43 yards last week before going 0 for 9 with three interceptions over the remainder of the game. Most of the incompletions were drops.
“It’s part of those growing pains. It’s not fun to go through,” Fleck said.
This week, three redshirt freshmen, Mark Williams, Phillip Howard and Clay Geary, were listed as starters on the latest depth chart. Howard has 11 catches for 132 yards, Williams has two receptions for 43 yards and Geary has not caught a pass.