Badgers brace for Minnesota receivers Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman
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Badgers brace for Minnesota receivers Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman

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MINNEAPOLIS — It’s rare that a defense sees a receiver as skilled with his footwork, body control and catching as Tyler Johnson.

It’s equally as rare that a defense must combat a receiver who has the speed, athleticism and route-running ability of a Rashod Bateman.

The University of Wisconsin football team must handle both Saturday when it travels to Minnesota in its regular-season finale. Playing Minnesota always takes on extra meaning for the No. 13 Badgers (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten), as bragging rights in college football’s longest-running rivalry and Paul Bunyan’s Axe hang in the balance. This year’s meeting has even higher stakes — the winner clinches the West Division’s bid into the league’s championship game.

Beating Minnesota (10-1, 7-1) at TCF Bank Stadium will require UW to find a way to slow Johnson and Bateman, one of just two sets of teammates to have 1,000 or more receiving yards this season. Both stand 6-foot-2 and weigh around 210 pounds, and have skill sets that will test the pass defense.

“They’re big-play machines. They can take a dig and take it to the house. They can catch a fade over people. They’re a really, really talented group. Probably the most talented that we’ve seen up to this point,” UW senior linebacker Chris Orr said.

Johnson, a senior, and Bateman, a sophomore, are a unique challenge because the Gophers put them in a variety of positions and design plays to isolate them with defenders. Both routinely line up outside and in the slot, making it difficult for defenses to provide safety help on both players.

Badgers junior safety Eric Burrell said the UW secondary has a great deal of respect for what Johnson and Bateman can do, and he believes the game will swing on how the unit handles them.

“I think it’ll come down to the DBs, whether or not we want to execute our opportunity,” he said. “I’m excited, all the rest of the DBs are excited. I think it’ll be a great time for us.”

Correcting mistakes

The pivotal matchup comes on the heels of some tough outings for the Badgers’ secondary.

Last week, Purdue was able to hit a pair of trick plays for big yardage. Freshman receiver David Bell tallied 12 catches for 108 yards and a touchdown, while tight end Brycen Hopkins had eight catches for 127 yards and two scores. The week prior against Nebraska, the Badgers allowed 220 yards on 13 completions, nearly 17 yards per catch. Iowa also hit a big play through the air early this month. A 75-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter brought the Hawkeyes within two points.

A common theme throughout those games was a lack of eye discipline, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said.

“We’ve gotten loose with our eyes in some situations and that happened on a couple of the trick plays, but even on some other ones, just getting your eyes where they need to be and winning where you need to be, where you need to win,” Leonhard said. “We need to win on every route in every coverage. So getting our guys back to being locked in on that and the execution has to be there.”

Maintaining proper eye discipline will be especially important against the Gophers, whose offense uses a heavy dose of run-pass option plays and play-action. Johnson and Bateman are also adept at double moves, getting defensive backs to bite on their fakes and creating separation when they truly break into their routes.

“It’s just all eyes,” sophomore cornerback Rachad Wildgoose said. “You’ve just got to have your eyes on the correct spot, and then it’ll be hard for people to beat you.”

Mistakes catching up to the secondary is frustrating, Burrell said.

After allowing just 139.4 yards per game through the air in its first eight games of the season, UW has allowed 251.3 in the past three. Burrell said he wants the secondary to come with its best focus on Saturday.

“Obviously haven’t really seen, at least throughout this season, the DBs haven’t really had a dominant performance,” he said. “But I’m going to try my best to rally the guys together and hopefully this will be the best time. Whatever I can do to let the DBs let it loose this weekend, it’ll be fun.”

Practices early this week had some of the most energy and hype of the season, Wildgoose said.

Limited availability

UW won’t be coming into the Minnesota matchup at full strength in the secondary.

Cornerback Faion Hicks was listed as questionable on Monday’s status report. Safety Reggie Pearson is dealing with shoulder issues that flared up after a hit he put on Hopkins in the second half against Purdue, and safety Collin Wilder will be out for the first half against the Gophers after being flagged for targeting last week. Wildgoose also was nursing a heel injury that had him wearing a walking boot as a precaution this week.

That leaves Caesar Williams, Deron Harrell and Donte Burton as the healthy cornerbacks with the most experience, and Burrell, Pearson and redshirt freshman John Torchio as the safeties.

“Welcome to November football,” Leonhard said. “That’s kind of everybody at every position. There becomes a pain-management aspect to football late in the season, because nobody feels their best and you’ve got to learn how to win despite that.”

Even when fully healthy, Leonhard has been keeping reps at cornerback spots open for competition.

Williams has come on in the second half of the year and started the past four games. He said playing with confidence has been the biggest difference for him.

“Going out there knowing that I can dominate these people, dominate my opponent. Just trusting my preparation and every week trusting what my coaches telling me I can do, and putting it out there,” Williams said.

That’s the kind of attitude Leonhard said you have to have to play corner, especially against talented receivers such as Minnesota’s.

“That’s the name of that position, confidence and technique. Do I know where to win and do I have the right attitude to get that done against a guy that we’re not seeing in practice?” Leonhard said. “You’re not seeing him on the scout team. You’re seeing guys that are All-American-caliber receivers this week. It should look dominant throughout the week when you’re not going against those guys to give yourself a chance.”

Help from all levels

Slowing down Johnson and Bateman can be made easier for the corners if UW’s pass rush can affect Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan.

It’s a balance that the Badgers have taken advantage of throughout the season — pressuring quarterbacks to give its secondary some help, and the secondary sticking to receivers to give the rush time to get there.

UW may even get some help from the weather — snow and rain are forecasted throughout the weekend for Minneapolis, which may make it tougher for the Gophers to get its dynamic duo downfield.

Whatever happens, Leonhard said he wants to see his defensive backs handle this challenge and the magnitude of the moment.

“There’s no question that guys are going to be locked in this week, and then you’ve got to go out there and execute it. That’s why all of those little things have got to show up, because emotions will be high,” he said. “You’ve got to get guys to think through that, and to execute even though the excitement is a little bit higher than some other weeks.”


No. 13 Badgers vs. No. 9 Minnesota: Who has the edge?

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