Game Preview


TCF Bank Stadium
Saturday, October 2, 11:00 am CDT
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Minnesota
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (4-0, 0-0) head up to Minneapolis to play their first ever game in TCF Bank Stadium, the home for the Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-3, 0-0) that opened last season.  Even though Minnesota has struggled so far this year (two of their losses have come to South Dakota, an FCS team, and Northern Illinois), these teams have a history of playing very close and very interesting games; just look at the wild finishes in 2007 (a 49-48 Northwestern 2OT win) and 2008 (the "walk off" interception return for TD by NU's Brendan Smith that led to a 24-17 Wildcat victory).

The 'Cats are coming fresh off of its second 4-0 regular season non-conference clean sweep in the past three seasons and are looking to continue its winning ways against the team many are figuring to be the Big Ten's worst in 2010.  Meanwhile, the Gophers were pretty handily beat by NIU last week, 34-23, thanks to an inability to run (just 97 rushing yards) and an inability to stop the run (gave up 297 rushing yards).  The fact is that Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster is basically playing to save his job right now thanks to a 15-27 overall record as head coach and an inability to get into competition for a top tier bowl after sneaking into bowl eligibly by getting seven and six wins the past two regular seasons, respectively.

Northwestern must also play a much cleaner game than they did against Central Michigan, where the 'Cats racked up a whopping 11 penalties for 106 yards and gave up 9 plays of 20 yards or longer, allowing CMU to get back into a game that the 'Cats essentially had won early in the fourth quarter.  QB Dan Persa continued his solid passing, despite throwing his first interception of the year, and has 8 TD tosses to just 1 INT on the year and has completed 80.2% of his passes, easily the best nationally in Division I FBS.  And the defense, despite giving up plenty of yards, makes things happen by generating turnovers, something they have done 12 times so far this season, allowing NU to win the turnover battle in all 4 games.

Minnesota is on their third offensive coordinator in three years under Brewster, and they haven't quite succeeded in their mantra of running the football first (they average just 3.8 yards per carry rushing this year).  In fact, their passing offense ranks 37th nationally (251.3 yards per game), which has been mostly out of necessity with the Gophers playing from behind for most of the season.  Their defense, after losing the vast majority of its starters from last season, hasn't helped matters by giving up 387 yards per game (85th nationally) and 31.0 points per game (94th nationally).

But, the Gophers will be looking to get a much-needed home win in this season's Homecoming game against NU, since they are 0-3 so far at home and their remaining slate at TCF Bank Stadium includes Penn State, Ohio State, and Iowa (who are all ranked as of this week).  The team and the fans will be fired up for this game, one that most view as their best chance of getting a W at home the rest of the way.

Although NU should have the edge in this one, Minnesota won't go down without a fight and the 'Cats should expect a very tough game in their first ESPN appearance of the season.  Hopefully NU got all the cobwebs shaken out during a sub-par (but still winning) performance against Central Michigan last week because this is the start of Big Ten play and top level play is necessary to win, even against struggling conference foes.

Opening Line

Northwestern by 4.

Who Should Win

Northwestern is definitely the favorite here, having swept through its non-conference slate with relative ease (well, at least there were two very comfortable wins in there).  Minnesota, meanwhile, is reeling while its head coach is fighting for his job on a game-by-game basis.  The Gophers' defense is poor and their offense just hasn't been able to pick up the slack and are now riding a three game losing streak (each of those three losses have come at home for Minnesota).

Upset Factor

This has been a very competitive series as of late, with NU holding a 6-5 edge since 1995, and 6 of those games have been decided by one TD or less.  Even in Minnesota's dismal 1-11 2007 campaign, they took the 'Cats to double overtime before NU was able to hold them off for a 49-48 win thanks to a two point conversion try that NU stopped.  The Gophers want to establish the run and although they have had trouble doing that so far this season, they were able to do so last year against NU on their way to a 35-24 win at Ryan Field.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Minnesota Defense

The 'Cats should have no problem moving the ball on the Gophers' defense, especially if Coach Fitz follows through on his promise to "kill the penalties" after last week's debacle.  First, despite throwing his first INT of the year, Persa continues his mastery of passing efficiency as he is currently tied for 2nd nationally in that statistic and also easily leads the nation in completion percentage at 80.2%.  Meanwhile, the Gophers rank 113th nationally in pass efficiency defense.  Anyone should be able to do the math on how this might turn out.

Also, Minnesota may be quite possibly the worst run defense NU has seen so far this season (Illinois State included), as they are currently yielding 6.4 yards per carry on the ground and rank 97th nationally in run defense.  Newly ordained co-starter Mike Trumpy, who had a relatively impressive performance last week with 12 carries for 53 yards (all in the second half), as well as the other co-starter Jacob Schmidt, who hit paydirt twice against Central Michigan.  If there is a recipe for getting that ground attack going, it is most definitely a matchup against the Gophers.

A lot of the defensive issues for Minnesota come thanks to significant attrition after last year, with essentially 9 new starters across the board (there are just 2 seniors starting).  Their most experienced players are in the secondary: senior CB Ryan Collado has a lot of career playing time under his belt, and senior S Kyle Theret is back after being suspended for the first 2 games of the year.  In fact, despite missing two games, Theret is 7th on the team in tackles and already has an INT, forced fumble, and TFL.

The Gophers' 3 linebackers are the top three tacklers on the team, and all three bring a good amount of athleticism despite a lack of experience.  The main issue, though, is up front where Minnesota has had the aforementioned trouble stopping the run while accumulating an average of just 0.5 sacks per game, which puts them next-to-last nationally (119th).

About the only thing that has kept Minnesota remotely in its games so far this season is turnovers: they've picked up 8 so far this year which ties them for 31st nationally, so NU must be wary, particularly given the propensity of some Wildcat RBs to fumble the ball.  But with a formidable passing attack while facing a porous run defense, the 'Cats should be in pretty good shape, as long as they can minimize any mistakes.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Minnesota Offense

The NU defense continued its success by grabbing more takeaways last week (they have 12 on the season, tied for 7th nationally) and that must continue as they have been lackluster in containing opposing offenses from a yards standpoint (they rank 77th nationally giving up 373.8 yards per game).  But, the fact is that those key stops (and blocked kicks, too) have translated into keeping those opponents off of the scoreboard as the 'Cats rank 22nd nationally, giving up just 15.5 points per game.

The run defense hasn't been stellar, but it has been good enough to hold opponents to 111.5 yards per game on the ground and under 4 yards per carry; it is important to note, though, that the 'Cats have faced a few pass-heavy teams so far.  Minnesota, on the other hand, has made a point of trying to run the football, running it 58.6% of the time despite trailing on the scoreboard for almost 63% of the time.  No, they haven't fared all that well (3.8 yards per carry), but they'll be trying.  Their featured weapon is Duane Bennett, who has a solid 4.7 yards per carry and 2 TDs this season (last year, he dinged the 'Cats for 89 yards and 3 TDs).  They also have DeLeon Eskridge and Donnel Kirkwood as decent backup options (combined 3.6 yards per carry) while Jon Hoese is the short yardage back (he has 3 TDs on the year, but all 3 came at Middle Tennessee, Minnesota's only win of the season).

The onus of stopping that insistent rushing attack will mostly be on the NU defensive line and linebacking corps (particularly middle linebacker Nate Williams).  Last year, 5 of NU's top 6 tacklers were from the secondary, and that didn't turn out so well with Minnesota controlling most of the game thanks to a 166 yard day rushing.  Much of the credit can be given to Minnesota's large and experienced offensive line; the center as well as the right guard and tackle are all seniors.  In fact, the only underclassman starter on the line is the redshirt freshman left tackle who is, well, quite large (6'7" 305 lb).

All that goes without mentioning the Gophers' senior starting quarterback, Adam Weber, who has indeed been around quite a while (he has thrown for 9,243 career passing yards, 59 TDs, and 45 INTs while outlasting 2 of his offensive coordinators).  This season, Weber has done a fairly good job of running the offense, throwing for over 1,000 yards passing so far while garnering the nation's 33rd pass efficiency rating to this point (yes, not as high as Persa, but still quite good).  And one must not look pass his running ability, as he racked up 617 yards on the ground his redshirt freshman season (although he has subsequently focused more on his passing as he has just 33 net rushing yards this year).

Finally, the receivers.  NU's depleted secondary will have to keep a watchful eye on Minnesota's biggest offensive weapon, converted QB MarQueis Gray, who came in last year as the "wildcat" QB against NU and racked up 33 rushing yards on just 5 carries.  He is first and foremost a great athlete and look for them to get him the ball early and often as he leads the team this season in receptions (22) and receiving yards (328).  Their other big weapon at WR is Da'Jon McKnight who stepped up last year when Eric Decker went down with his injury.  Speaking of Decker, this offense is a shell of what it was with him on the field (reference his 2 TDs against NU last year), but it still has weapons available.

The Wildcat secondary will most definitely be tested in this game that will likely feature a series of runs followed by shots down the field; the defensive backs can't be caught napping as that long pass could come at any time and they have receivers capable of hauling in those passes.  With strong safeties David Arnold and Jared Carpenter both still banged up and not listed on the two-deep, it will be up to sophomore Hunter Bates to step up again and redshirt freshman Davion Fleming, when called upon, to learn from his significant experience last week to hold down the fort.

Minnesota is in the middle of the pack nationally in most statistical categories.  Northwestern's D, as noted earlier, has allowed teams to move down the field but has been very opportunistic by snagging those valuable takeaways.  The main priorities in this game will be stopping the run without putting that extra safety in the box on every play while also getting enough takeaways to steal a score or two away from the Gophers.

What to Look for: Special Teams

Special teams was a big factor in NU's win over Central Michigan as the 'Cats blocked a field goal and two extra points, which was, coincidentally or not, the final margin of victory (5 points).  It's not like the Wildcats didn't have their own problems on special teams, though, as PK Stefan Demos saw one of his extra point tries blocked while also missing a 45 yard field goal that would have broken the tie just before halftime.  Also, punter Brandon Williams had his worst day as NU's punter so far with a 36.5 yards per punt average (although he did place 2 of his 4 punts inside the 20 yard line).

Minnesota's kicker, Eric Ellstad, has hit on all 13 extra points this year but is 5-of-9 on FGs, hitting an unimpressive 1-of-5 outside of 30 yards.  If the game comes down to field goals, which it very well could given the close play in this series, things could get quite interesting.  The Gophers' net punting has been pretty darn bad, ranking 110th nationally at 30.5 net yards per punt (NU ranks 28th nationally at 38.8 net yards per punt).  Those net gains in field positions can be key, especially if the game comes down to that aforementioned kicking game.

Finally, return games.  NU has improved from last year's dismal return numbers, but not by that much, ranking 76th and 81st in kickoff and punt average return yards, respectively.  The Gophers aren't much better at 64th and 83rd, respectively.  Both are also middle-of-the-road in coverage except for the fact that Minnesota yielded a kickoff return for TD to USC.

It will be very interesting to look out for the "hidden yardage" in special teams (particularly in the punting game), while it may also be quite heart-stopping whenever the teams decide to try a field goal attempt (the Gophers have also had one of their kicks blocked this season).

Miscellaneous Notes

NU in the Lead

The Wildcats have never trailed this season and have actually led in 195 minutes and 41 seconds of the 240 total game minutes so far this season (that's 81.5% of the time for those counting at home).  The 'Cats have also been tied or had the lead in 20 consecutive games dating back to the 2008 game against Ohio State.

Minnesota Trailing

The Gophers, meanwhile, have trailed in 151 minutes (even) of the 240 total game minutes so far this season (that's 62.9% of the time).


Northwestern has won 7 consecutive regular season games (starting with NU's 17-10 upset of then-undefeated Iowa last season).  Also, the Wildcats have won four consecutive road games dating back to that same victory in 2009.

Turnovers and Running Battles

With last week's win in the turnover battle and on the scoreboard, the 'Cats have moved to 4-0 on the year when winning the turnover battle.  They are 10-0 when doing so dating back to the beginning of last season.  NU also won the rushing battle last week, 149-76, making the 'Cats undefeated when rushing for more yards than their opponent also dating back to the beginning of last season.

Northwestern in Minnesota

The 'Cats haven't lost at Minnesota since 2004, and closed out their play in the Metrodome with the infamous "walk-off" interception for TD 24-17 victory in 2008, giving NU a (winning) 5-4-1 record in the "Humpdome."

Injury Report


LB Roderick Goodlow (knee, out for season), S David Arnold (foot, out), OL Evan Luxenburg (knee, out), S Jared Carpenter (back, doubtful).

Northwestern got some added depth last week as OL Keegan Grant got the start after sitting for the first few weeks of the season with an illness and DT Niko Mafuli got some action (including a blocked extra point kick) after being sidelined for a while.  Unfortunately, the safety spot is getting very thin with Arnold still out and Carpenter sidelined for the past two games.  Hopefully one or both of them will be able to return against Minnesota (although neither are listed on the depth chart as of Monday).  Note that NU's injury report will be updated on Thursday; look out for updates from me on Twitter.


S Kim Royston (leg, doubtful), WR Conner Cosgrove (leukemia, out), WR Tony Stoudermire (suspended indefinitely).

The Gophers did get a boost in the secondary with the return of S Kyle Theret two weeks ago, but is still hurting without Royston on the field, who was injured in the preseason.  Stoudermire was their third leading receiver last season and also handled most kickoffs, but has been suspended for the whole season thus far.  Finally, Cosgrove (son of Minnesota's co-defensive coordinator) wasn't on the depth chart but his diagnosis was definitely tough for the team emotionally.


Northwestern 30, Minnesota 24

Given Minnesota's well-documented troubles so far this season, I'm going to go against my preseason prediction but with my better judgment and predict a Wildcat victory this Saturday.  While the NU defense will yield yards and points, I believe their ball-hawking ways will continue enough to put the 'Cats in a position to win.  On the flipside, the Northwestern offense will be able to do pretty well for themselves and may finally be in a position to do something on the ground thanks to a back with potential (Trumpy) and a defense that is susceptible to the run.  Persa will continue to do what he does best: throw the ball very efficiently.  And I'm predicting 30 points for the Wildcats since they are averaging exactly that number on the season and they've scored 30 for two straight games, so, why not.

Expect Fitz to have the team well-focused for their first Big Ten test of the year, but also don't discount the motivation in play for the Gophers who will essentially be fighting for their head coach's job.  It should turn out to be quite a contest, very much in line with many recent meetings between these two squads.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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