Game Preview


Ryan Field
Saturday, November 19, 2011.  11:00 am CST
WGN 720 AM Radio 

Game Preview: Minnesota
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (5-5, 2-4) have fought back from a rough five game losing streak to get within one game of bowl eligibility, and this game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-5, 2-8) seems to be their best opportunity to become eligible for postseason play for the fifth consecutive season. The Gophers, meanwhile, continue their fight for respectability as first-year head coach Jerry Kill rebuilds the program, having defeated Iowa a few weeks ago and fighting hard at Michigan State to lose by just seven (they have lost their four road games by an average of 19 points). One week after riding a solid all-around performance to a business-like 22-point win over Rice, the Wildcats will face a Big Ten opponent this time around but will be looking for another good performance in all phases in order to reach win number six.

The 'Cats own a 7-5 edge over the Gophers since 1995, but recent meetings have certainly been close: NU's three wins over Minnesota while Tim Brewster was at the helm (four meetings total) were by a total of nine points, with all four of the games being decided in the fourth quarter or later (in the case of the 2007 2OT win in Evanston). Both teams' fans certainly pencil in a "W" beside this game each preseason and right now both teams really need a victory here: Northwestern to reach all-important bowl eligibility, and Minnesota to gain some respect and momentum heading further into head coach Jerry Kill's rebuilding project.

Both teams are pretty bad on defense: NU is 10th in the conference in both total and scoring defense, with Minnesota close behind in both categories ranking 11th. But, the advantage certainly swings in the 'Cats' favor when looking at offense: Northwestern is second in the league in total offense and fourth in scoring offense, while Minnesota is dead last in the Big Ten (12th) in both categories. Though the Gophers do have a significant weapon in QB MarQueis Gray, Northwestern's suddenly rejuvinated defense should be able to contain him while the NU offense puts up a slew of yards and points on Minnesota. Again, if NU can duplicate the all-around effort from the past two weeks, they should reach bowl eligibility with ease; but, we've seen many close games in this series and NU cannot afford to "play down to the competition" here (something that they unfortunately do quite often).

Opening Line

Northwestern by 15.5

Who Should Win

Northwestern. Although Minnesota has certainly made strides this season, culminating in a huge win over rival Iowa just a few weeks ago, they have still won just two games this season and were eliminated from bowl contention two games ago. The 'Cats, meanwhile, have that important sixth win and a fifth consecutive year of bowl eligibility well within their sites and are humming on all cylinders now with the defense coming around. Also note that two of NU's three largest margins of victory over FBS teams in the Fitz era (22 points vs. Rice, tied for first, and 21 points at Indiana; third) have occurred within the last three contests, with that historic road upset over Nebraska sandwiched between the two. It certainly appears that this team will not be denied a 13th game, and though the Gophers aren't a team to be dismissed, they won't be a huge obstacle in the way of that goal.

Upset Factor

MarQueis Gray, Minnesota QB, is a player and has come on strong ever since an injury held him out earlier this year and he could do nothing but watch as his Gophers experienced the low point of the year: a 58-0 loss at Michigan. Two of their best games of the year have come in their last three contests: the stunning 22-21 upset over an Iowa team that was still in the hunt for the Big Ten Legends Division crown as late as last week, and pushing Michigan State to the brink two weeks ago in East Lansing, losing by just seven. Gray can do it on the ground (leading the Gophers with 639 rushing yards) and also in the air (1,286 passing yards) and has 10 total touchdowns on the year as the focal point of the Minnesota offense. Though NU's defense has shown improvement, they still rank 70th nationally in points allowed and we've seen what has happened this year when the defense falters, and the Gophers have just enough weapons to take advantage if that happens again.

What to Look for: Northwestern Offense vs. Minnesota Defense

Northwestern's offense is very good: 445.5 yards per game of total offense (second in the Big Ten), 30.9 points per game (fourth in the conference), the conference's top passing offense (261.0 yards per game), QB Dan Persa who once again leads the Big Ten in completion percentage at 75.1% (on pace to break his own conference record set last year), and the multi-dimensional threat of QB/WR Kain Colter (who has accounted for 15 Wildcat TDs this season). Meanwhile, Minnesota's defense is very bad: allowing 430.9 yards per game (11th in the conference), 34.5 points per game (104th nationally, also 11th in the Big Ten), 5.3 yards per carry, yielding a 68.5% completion rate (with only 3 INTs to 21 passing TDs), and allowing 40+ points in four of their last six games.

Northwestern would be wise to continue running a balanced attack: Minnesota's run defense and pass defense rank below 100th nationally (in terms of yards per game) and they really haven't been able to slow anyone down. Even in their big win over Iowa, the Hawkeyes' Marcus Coker racked up 252 yards on the ground. The biggest reason Iowa lost that game is that they couldn't stay on the field on third downs (they were 4-of-11); NU, meanwhile, has steadily improved on third down conversions after an iffy start and now ranks ninth in the nation (at 50.0%). As long as the 'Cats stay in front of the chains, they'll be in great shape to methodically move the ball down the field and then get points on the board.

One doesn't need to spend much time rehashing the Northwestern offense: Persa is really good at passing, and Colter is a weapon on the ground, passing, and catching. And once NU gets the lead, the run game has been good at milking that lead over the last three weeks (Northwestern has averaged 220.0 yards per game on the ground over that span). Jeremy Ebert is performing at an all-Big Ten level (again) and Drake Dunsmore is always a solid option in the middle of the field. And there are a bevy of other receiving threats, too, and look for the 'Cats to get anyone and everyone involved if Minnesota keys on one guy.

On the other side of the ball, the Gophers' best weapon, by far, is DB Kim Royston who has come on strong after missing all of last year with an injury: he leads Minnesota in tackles (93, 21 ahead of the second place player). But they are certainly vulnerable in the secondary after losing Troy Stoudermire to an injury; he is still the team's leader in interceptions with two (they have just three on the entire season). Their biggest threat in the backfield is LB Gary Tinsley, who leads the team in both TFLs (8.0) and sacks (3.0) and is the aforementioned second leading tackler on the Gophers. The defensive line, though, doesn't pose a huge threat: they have accounted for just 5.5 sacks on the year. If NU can keep the pace up and pick up any blitzes, they should be in good shape here.

Look for a more balanced attack from NU this week as Minnesota has the athletes to defend the Wildcats in a more traditional manner (instead of selling out against the run, which Rice did), leaving openings for Colter and NU's RBs to use to their advantage. Northwestern has done well at avoiding turnovers (27th nationally with just 14 lost on the season) and if they can continue that trend, they should be just fine as Minnesota shows little signs of being able to stop high powered offenses, and that is exactly what the 'Cats have.

What to Look for: Northwestern Defense vs. Minnesota Offense

Now time to see if the Northwestern defensive turnaround is really a trend as they shoot for their third solid performance in a row. The coaching staff seems to have found the right rotation and combinations of linemen and linebackers to contain the ground game while the defensive backs seem to be playing better with a more simplified defensive scheme. S Ibraheim Campbell has had two nice days in terms of tackles and other contributions (like a fumble recovery at Nebraska), while Tyler Scott has come on strong after some dings earlier in the year (with one takeaway in each of the last two games). This week, the 'Cats will be facing another dual-threat QB, which they've done a pretty good job of bottling up as of late (Indiana's Tre Roberson and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez); expect NU to employ some of the same techniques (keeping the QB in the tackle box and funneling to the middle of the field for the tackle) this game.

As mentioned earlier, MarQueis Gray is Minnesota's best and most consistent weapon, leading the team in both passing and rushing; the easiest way to see his impact is to look at what this year's Minnesota did without him when he was out at Michigan due to injury: they were demolished 58-0. He did have a rough outing against Wisconsin last week (the Gophers gained just 156 yards of total offense and scored thanks to a kickoff return and a fake field goal run) thanks to a back injury sustained the week prior at Michigan State and some personal issues (the birth of his two children, twins, the day before, who were still in the hospital at game time). But those should be mostly cleared up this week, and expect him to lead Minnesota back to an effort like they gave against Iowa (a win) and MSU (kept it close and lost by one score).

Expect some runs from Duane Bennett, who is second on Minnesota in carries after Gray, but the focal point of the offense will be Gray with some passes to DaJon McKnight, easily the team's leading receiver with 45 grabs on the year (31 more than the next closest player), 662 yards (559 more than the next), and 4 TDs (2 more than the next). With that, NU's formula should be pretty simple: keep Gray boxed in and cover McKnight (easier said than done for NU's secondary, but certainly more possible than covering multiple threats). Even so, McKnight has been spotty: he has eclipsed 100 yards just twice (against New Mexico State and Michigan State, where he also scored all of his TDs), and in the other games the Gophers have failed to gain over 200 yards through the air (last week against Wisconsin they completed just 6 passes for 51 yards). The Northwestern secondary may actually look good against this offense.

The NU defense is riding high and look for the 'Cats to keep Gray contained while dialing up pressure on obvious passing downs in order to keep his completion rate low (it's 51.7% on the year). If NU can accomplish that, then some turnovers will likely come their way: Gray has 7 INTs on the season (3.9% of his passes). The play of the linebackers will be key: NU needs to bring down Gray near the line of scrimmage when he does run while also stuffing any traditional runs from Bennett. The defense is certainly capable of containing the Minnesota offense, and if they succeed at doing that, NU can attain bowl eligibility by taking care of business much like they did last week.

What to Look for: Special Teams

Coach Fitzgerald has highlighted the Minnesota return game as a big concern for the 'Cats, particularly because that's how they scored their only second half points against Wisconsin last week (a 96 yard return from Duane Bennett, who is now handling kickoff returns after Marcus Jones went down with an injury; Bennett also has a punt return for touchdown off of a block). But, Northwestern has continued to play very well in coverage: NU ranks 5th nationally in punt return defense (second fewest number of returns, 5, and just 0.6 yards per return allowed) while they also rank 16th in kick return defense (18.7 yards per return allowed). Though the 'Cats' kickers haven't been consistenly kicking very far (Brandon Williams has hit just 8-of-37 punts inside the 20 while Steve Flaherty has just 5 touchbacks on 54 kicks), the great coverage team has prevented any significant returns. If they continue doing that, Minnesota will have that much tougher of a time generating points.

On the flip side, Venric Mark is always a threat to do something special on a return, but outside of a 41 yard return at Nebraska, he's been relatively quiet as of late. Minnesota isn't too shabby on coverage: they're 32nd on punt return defense and 33rd on kick return defense. Unless Mark breaks out of his recent funk here, expect essentially a stalemate in the kicking game.

On to placekickers: NU has seemingly lost confidence in Jeff Budzien as they opted to go for it on fourth down within respectable field goal range multiple time over the last two weeks (some due to the game situation, though the 'Cats could have definitely justified a FG in some of those spots); on the year, he is 5-of-9 and has hit four of his last six tries. For the Gophers, they have gone to Jordan Wettstein as previous starter Chris Hawthorne went down with an injury; Wettstein has hit both FG tries and is 5-of-6 on XPs (his only miss was after he ran in a fake FG last week). We'll see what happens if this is a close game and the kickers are forced to decide it: last year NU's Stefan Demos missed a potential game-tying XP in the third quarter but came back to boot the game-winning FG late in the fourth.

Miscellaneous Notes


Northwestern has allowed 1.0 sacks per game in its five wins while allowing 4.2 sacks per game in its five losses. This is obviously an important stat for the 'Cats but that importance becomes even more apparent when looking at some advanced statistics: NU's passing downs S&P+ (rating of success of plays run on 2nd-and-8+ or 3rd-and-5+) are the weakest part of their offense, as they rank 74th nationally in that category (overall, the offense ranks 23rd in S&P+, including 12th on standard downs, which are the opposite of the passing down scenarios listed above). Fortunately, Minnesota does not present a huge sack threat, as they average just 1.2 per game (106th nationally), and the Gophers' porous run defense should allow NU to mix it up and avoid the pass rush for much of the day.

Third Down Conversions

These teams are certainly diametric opposites on offense: NU is 9th nationally converting 50% of their third downs while Minnesota is 100th (35.7%). On defense, they are pretty close: Minnesota is allowing a 47.2% conversion rate (102nd) while NU comes in at 112th (49.3%) but the 'Cats allowed Rice to convert just 4-of-13 tries a week ago. This certainly sets up well for the 'Cats who can hopefully continue to move the ball on offense while getting off the field on defense.


NU had a great start to the 2011 season, averaging 38,458 through the first three games of the year. After the lowest attendance number of the year, NU now stands at an average of 35,566, 883 below last year's mark (a 50+% increase over the prior year), with the Wildcats needing some strong showings to continue the forward momentum on the attendance front. This game will be interesting, as Minnesota traditionally does not travel well (and they don't have any really good reason to this season) but the 'Cats are seeking bowl eligibility. Next week's game may also be very interesting: it is NU's first home game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in the post-1995 era and they'll be facing a Michigan State squad that will either be headed to Indianapolis for the conference title game or still fighting for that spot. If MSU beats Indiana this week and Nebraska loses to Michigan, the Spartans will have already punched their ticket to Indy, and it will be interesting to see what kind of crowd attends the game and what kind of effort MSU gives (will they pack it in to save up for the title game? Interesting question for the first championship game year in the Big Ten). But, if MSU loses and/or Nebraska wins at Michigan and then vs. Iowa, this game will decide if the Spartans go to the title game or not, in which case much more focus will be on the game (and one would expect many MSU fans to make the trip). And, of course, if the 'Cats win this week, they could be in a position to significantly bolster their bowl position by getting to seven wins on the year.

Injury Report


RB Mike Trumpy (out for season, knee), WR Tony Jones (doubtful, leg), CB Demetrius Dugar (questionable, concussion), S David Arnold (questionable, hand).

The Wildcats biggest victory on Saturday may have been keeping the Northwestern trainers relatively unoccupied for the duration of the afternoon. NU experienced a few dings at Nebraska, but has seemingly recovered and avoided any significant injury against Rice. Most importantly, Persa's shoulder looked to be more than fine, but some other guys came out and played after leaving last week's game in Lincoln (Jack Konopka and Jeravin Matthews to name a couple). Dugar and Arnold were not technically ruled out against Rice, so hopefully they will be available in NU's final two contests against tougher competition.


CB Troy Stoudermire (questionable, arm), K Chris Hawthorne (doubtful, leg), OL Ryan Orton (questionable, back), OL Jimmy Gjere (questionable, concussion), WR/KR Marcus Jones (out for season, knee).

Minnesota's biggest loss so far has been CB Stoudermire, who was also an effective return man for the squad. Other than that, they've had their share of dings but nothing that would explain the season they've had so far; the fact is that they didn't have a lot of talent in the cupboard to being with, which Coach Kill noted in order to get some more time tacked onto his contract (not formally signed until into this season) as he seeks to rebuild the program.


Northwestern 35, Minnesota 21

Expect NU to roll on offense as they use a balanced attack to churn out yards and hit paydirt. Though Gray will put up some of his best numbers through the air (mostly to McKnight), the ground game will be contained and they just won't have enough in the tank to keep up with the 'Cats as the defense puts up another solid effort before yielding some garbage time production. The Gophers have a lot of fight but will only be able to spoil NU's bowl eligibility party if the 'Cats make mistakes and decide to mail it in opposite of last week's workman-like performance. Fitz has this team focused and playing well on both sides of the ball after major issues earlier in the year, and we've seen that under him NU owns November. Hopefully that continues and we can spend next week breaking down all of the possible bowl scenarios.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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