Minnesota and Wisconsin approach their final non-conference game very differently from one another — and their recent past.
Two-time defending league champion Wisconsin ranks last in Big Ten scoring offense (16.3), 115th nationally. The Badgers (2-1) needed Utah State to miss a 37-yard field goal in the game’s final seconds and stopped FCS Northern Iowa late in the fourth quarter for their two home wins.
Minnesota (3-0) already has matched its win total in each of the last two seasons. The Gophers finished 116th in touchdown passes with 10 last year but so far has nine. In 2011 Minnesota was 11th in Big Ten passer efficiency — 107th nationally — but now ranks first in the Big Ten and seventh in college football.
“It’s early yet,” said Minnesota second-year coach Jerry Kill. “I think if you get into too many stats early … you’re not strong in anything right now.”
But the statistical contrast is striking between the longtime rivals, who play at Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 20. Wisconsin led the Big Ten in points per game last year at 44.1 and in total offense with almost 470 yards per game.
Now, the Badgers are last at 276 a game, more than 57 yards behind 11th Iowa, and 116th overall. Wisconsin also led the league in first downs and third-down conversions last year and now rank last in both categories.
It’s a shocking development for the Badgers. Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after a 10-7 loss at Oregon State. The running game was inept against Utah State, especially in short-yardage situations. Seven times the Badgers faced two yards or less to reach a first down. Only twice did Wisconsin convert those plays into first downs. The first five plays — all of which were runs — netted minus-3 yards and no first downs.
Bielema blamed penalties for some of the offensive woes, but the Badgers are the Big Ten’s least-penalized team and no penalties took place on those plays. Wisconsin has converted just 8-of-32 third-down opportunities the last two games.
“They’ll do whatever they have to do to stop the run,” Bielema said. “And we have to be, A, be able to throw the football and, B, be able to still execute. Because there are times when the numbers are against us. And I realize that. But that’s when we have to be able to throw the football down the field and be able to take chances and being able to convert some play-action passes.”
Wisconsin benched starting quarterback Danny O’Brien at halftime in favor of freshman Joel Stave. Still, the quarterbacks combined for just 78 passing yards on 16 attempts. The competition remains open.
Minnesota (3-0) boasts two quarterbacks with different skill sets. Senior MarQueis Gray is 6-foot-4, weighs 250 pounds and multidimensional as a runner and passer. Gray has completed 26-of-44 passes for 398 yards and five TDs with only one interception. Gray also has rushed for 234 yards but suffered a leg injury last week against Western Michigan and did not return. Sophomore Max Shortell, a traditional dropback quarterback at 6-6, promptly tossed three touchdowns to lead the Gophers to a 28-23 win.
Gray remains out this week, and Shortell will start Saturday against Syracuse.
“We’re not going to change our offense or anything like that,” Kill said. “But we’re going to do what it takes to beat Syracuse within our system and we’ll try to play to Max’s strengths.
“I don’t think Max is as one-dimensional as people think. We’ll always have somebody who can … guys in our offense who can do a lot of different things.”
Minnesota has improved defensively as well. In 2011, the Gophers were last in Big Ten defensive interceptions with four. They now rank second and have five picks. Minnesota also tops the league in defensive pass efficiency after finishing 11th last year.
Minnesota also has eight sacks — all by the starting defensive line — this year, while last year compiling only 19. The Gophers’ starting front four combined for 12 starts last year.
“I don’t think we’ve made any changes,” Kill said. “I think our players are performing better than we were at this time last year. I think we’ve got some kids that are making some plays. We’re more athletic and gifted at this point in time than we were a year ago, and we’ve been able to get some pressure on the quarterback.”