October 3, 2009

Five things to watch: Minnesota

MADISON, Wis. - For the first time in 2009, the Wisconsin football team is on the road. It won't be an easy task as they will be the first ever conference opponent to play Minnesota in their new TCF Bank Stadium.

Before kickoff later today, BadgerBlitz.com breaks down five things to watch as the Badgers try to keep their record perfect as well as my prediction as to how the game will play out.

1.) Weber and Decker:

When Wisconsin played Fresno State in week two, it was Bulldogs receiver Devon Wylie that had a big day against the Badger secondary. Then, against Michigan State, that same young secondary shut down Blair White, one of the conference's best receivers.

This week, though, the Badgers are going against the conference's best receiver in Eric Decker. On the season, the Gopher senior has averaged 125 yards and one touchdown per game.

UW secondary coach Kerry Cooks made it clear that UW will not change its ways particularly for Decker, but that they do have some plans in regard to slowing him down.

And that plan will likely succeed at a high level if the Badger defensive front seven can get pressure on Adam Weber. If not, Weber, who has a great on-field chemistry with Decker, will be able to sit in the pocket and dismantle UW's young secondary.

But if O'Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt as well as the defensive tackles of UW can get a push, Weber is mistake prone. And obviously, if Weber is making mistakes, Decker is not going to have a big game.

2. UW's running game against Minnesota's front seven:

Even though starting defensive end Cedric McKinley[db] was suspended by head coach [db]Tim Brewster, the Gophers still have a big defensive line, particularly in the middle.

However, Minnesota's rushing defense is one of the worst in the Big Ten and the Badgers rushing offense is one of the best in the league. Something has to give.

With John Clay rushing for 143 yards on 30+ carries against Michigan State, he seems to have some momentum to begin conference play. If that continues, he will likely have a big game against the Gophers.

And if Clay has a big game, the UW offense, averaging 36 points per game, will be rolling.

3.) Tolzien's first road start:

As a first-year starting quarterback, this will be Scott Tolzien's first start on the road. Through four games, though, you would never guess Tolzien is in his first year as a starter.

In those games, Tolzien leads the Big Ten and ranks 13th nationally in passing efficiency at 164.3. That number really gains merit considering the school record, set by Darrell Bevell in 1993, is a cool 155.2.

Tolzien has already been named Big Ten player of the week after his four-touchdown, zero interception game against Michigan State. On the season, Tolzien has eight touchdowns and two interceptions.

All those numbers though, can be thrown out the window today, as he will play in what is sure to be a hostile environment inside TCF Bank stadium.

Tolzien is smart and has shown he doesn't force things, but it will be interesting to see how he reacts to harsh adversity on the road. One would think the Badgers would try to establish the run early on to let Tolzien settle in.

4.) Rainy weather:

The Badgers practice in the rain on Thursday in preparation for rainy conditions today. According to most forecasts, there is a good chance of showers during the game. And considering the fact that the game will be played outdoors for the first time in many years in Minneapolis, the rain could play a major factor in the outcome of the game.

Two weeks ago, Wisconsin fumbled the ball six times in its blowout win over Wofford. In slick and cold conditions, it will be even more important for ball carriers to secure the rock and maintain possession.

Rain can affect many portions of the game, including grip for the quarterbacks, receivers and even holders. In a game that is expected to come down to the wire, and if rain is indeed a part of the game, the team with the best focus will likely come out on top.

5.) The bright lights of TCF Bank:

It's been nearly three decades since Minnesota has played a home game outdoors. So, needless to say, the Gopher and Badger faithful in attendance will surely be amped up for this game.

In the case of Wisconsin, this may be the most hostile environment it will play in this season. Believe me, I am fully aware of the trip to Ohio State next weekend, but because of the rivalry, and passion and emotion of the new stadium, this will surely be an intense game on each side of the ball.

Lea's prediction:

If it is raining, you would have to think the conditions would favor Wisconsin. They rank second in the conference with 197 rushing yards per game. In comparison, Minnesota ranks in the bottom third of the league in rushing defense.

So, on paper, UW should be able to move the ball on the ground. If that is the case, and one I fully expect to see UW establish, I think UW will retain the axe.

However, based on the emotion and intensity of the rivalry and new stadium, Minnesota will keep it very close. But, in the end, Philip Welch will hit a field goal to give the Badgers a 27-24 win.

Lea's season record:

4-0


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