Saturday, October 13, 2012 11:00 am CDT
ESPN 1000 Radio
Game Preview: Minnesota
by Jonathan Hodges
Northwestern Wildcats (5-1, 1-1) will be looking to bounce back from a
tough loss last weekend as they hit the road to take on the Minnesota
Golden Gophers (4-1, 0-1) who have had a week to stew on their own
first loss of the season. The 'Cats are coming off of giving up an 11
point fourth quarter lead, while Minnesota got steamrolled by Iowa
early in the game and never really had a chance to get back on track.
Both teams were undefeated heading into those losses, though they got
there by distinctly different tracks: NU defeated four different BCS
conference teams on their way to 5-0, while Minnesota beat just one (at
home) and had to survive a triple overtime scare against a bad UNLV
team in week one.
Gophers' season so far has been defined by the loss of QB MarQueis Gray
who suffered a high ankle sprain against Western Michigan on September
15 and has been out ever since (he did not appear on this week's depth
chart). Since that time Minnesota's offensive output has dropped from
34 points per game to 15. The Gophers have also seen their total
offense drop in each week after putting up 478 yards at UNLV (they had
299 in their last game at Iowa). Meanwhile, after a good start on
defense, they've let things slip a little on that side of the ball with
three consecutive games yielding 350+ yards. Their only answer on
defense has been generating turnovers: they have 5 passes intercepted
on the year along with 5 fumble recoveries.
Northwestern must get back on track on offense after being derailed at
Penn State minus one long drive and taking advantage of Penn State
mistakes a couple of other times to shorten the field. The defense was
certainly gassed in the fourth quarter as PSU held the ball for almost
two thirds of the game, so expect them to turn things around this week
against a team that they held in check late last season. Finally, NU
will be looking to special teams to give an advantage once again after
that phase provided a big boost last week.
game is vital for NU to stay in the Legends Division race, while
Minnesota certainly wants to step closer to bowl eligibility which
would be huge for second year coach Jerry Kill. Expect both teams to
come out hungry in this intra-divisional Big Ten game where the teams
have a history of playing close and exciting games.
Opening Line: Northwestern by 3.5.
Who Should Win: Northwestern.
The Wildcats are a better all-around football team than the Gophers,
NU's fourth quarter breakdown at PSU notwithstanding. Iowa exposed the
Gophers as pretenders two weeks ago as the Minnesota defense
essentially caved in early while the offense couldn't do too much
without QB MarQueis Gray, who may be back this week but will likely not
be at 100% after suffering a high ankle sprain a few weeks back. On top
of that, TCF Bank Stadium is no comparison to Happy Valley when it
comes to crowd noise and a home field advantage (NU has won its only
game played there and hasn't lost at Minnesota since 2004).
We saw what happened last week when Kain Colter was essentially taken
out of the game and still-young QB Trevor Siemian couldn't hit his
passes to move the football. That is once again quite possible here,
and Minnesota has enough talent to be dangerous if NU is suffering
lingering effects from the previous game. Much like Indiana, these
teams have played some close games in their series as of late, and
coach Jerry Kill certainly has the program moving in the right
direction after floundering before he came on board.
NU Offense vs. Minnesota Defense: The
Gophers' defense looked solid early but was exposed against Iowa; their
total defense is respectable (23rd nationally at 320.8 yards per game)
but thing have been slipping as of late. Plus, the weakest part of
their defense is against the run (139.2 yards per game allowed, 51st)
which matches with an NU strength (although one that was hardly
utilized a week ago). Look for NU to run early and often with Kain
Colter, Venric Mark, and even Mike Trumpy against a team that has some
vulnerability on the ground. On the other hand, moving the ball through
the air looks to be tough as the Gophers rank 20th nationally in pass
defense and 11th in pass efficiency defense and thrive on turnovers.
Derrick Wells is the guy to watch out for there as he already has 2
INTs and 7 pass break-ups to go with a team-leading 36 tackles. It's
vital that Northwestern establish the run early and ride that if it's
NU Defense vs. Minnesota Offense:
With Gray out, Minnesota will look to QB Max Shortell, who has now
appeared in a total of 12 collegiate games and is still looking to
establish himself; for his career he has a 55% completion rate, an 8:6
TD:INT ratio, and has averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. In stark contrast
to Gray, he's also not a runner, averaging 2.0 yards per carry (sacks
included). Look for the Gophers to line up in traditional sets and run
with Donnell Kirkwood (93 carries for 394 yards on the year, 4.2 yards
per carry, and 3 TDs) while they mainly move the ball through the air
with Shortell. WR AJ Barker has 10 more receptions than the closest
teammate, so he's the guy to key on in the secondary. The Wildcats will
have to shift the trend from the PSU game by getting off the field on
third and fourth downs, as they allowed PSU to covert over half of
those attempts (they could not force PSU off of the field in the fourth
quarter). Look for the NU defense to once again key on the run game in
order to force Shortell to throw, and if his statistics continue NU
should be able to take advantage with incompletions or interceptions.
NU can really shift the tide with a solid pass rush, as they were
unable to bring down the QB a week ago. Note that it's possible that
Gray plays; if he does, Northwestern knows how to contain him: last
season they held him to a 43% completion rate and while he racked up
yards on the ground, that's the only way Minnesota could move the ball
and the 'Cats otherwise had the Gophers bottled up.
NU once again holds a huge edge on special teams: NU's kickers are
perfect on the year for XPs and FGs, while Minnesota's kicker is just
4-of-9 on the season (though he has made all 16 XPs). NU was able to
shore some things up on the coverage teams last week, and will once
again not face a huge threat (Minnesota ranks 70th nationally on punt
returns and 102nd on kick returns). Finally, we all saw what Mark did
once again last week, and while Minnesota has a middle of the road
coverage team on punts (54th), they are stingy on kickoffs (15th) where
NU hasn't been as good (117th nationally on kickoff returns).
- Since 1995, NU and Minnesota have met 6 times when both teams have had a .500 or better record, and NU is 4-2 in those games.
Since 1995, Northwestern is 8-0 against Minnesota when entering the
game with 3 or more wins. The last time that NU lost to the Gophers
when entering the game with 3 or more wins was 1975.
- Over its last two games, NU has allowed just 1 sack with 72 total pass attempts (counting the sack).
- NU's remaining opponents are a combined 5-12 vs. BCS conference teams, 16-13 vs. FBS teams, and 20-13 overall.
Northwestern has won 5 straight when it is favored and 12 of the last
14. Under Fitz, NU has won 78.8% of games when favored (including games
versus FCS teams that do not have a Vegas line).
RB/KR/PR Venric Mark continues to put up solid numbers: he is second in
the conference and seventh nationally in all-purpose yards with 180.5
per game, is averaging 102.5 rush yards per game (at 5.4 yards per
carry) and has 6 rushing TDs.
For the first time under Fitz, NU failed to win a game in which it
out-sacked its opponent (NU had 2 and PSU had 1 sack), bringing NU's
record in such games to 12-1.
Despite a subpar game against the run last week, NU ranks 15th
nationally and second in the conference on run defense (102.7 yards per
game) and is still on track to set a school record for that statistic.
Under Fitz, Northwestern is 4-1 against Minnesota (2-0 on the road),
and its wins have come by an average of 6.0 points (including two
The Wildcats have outscored their cumulative opponents in each of the
first three quarters through this season, including by 37 in the second
- Northwestern averages 2.7 rushing touchdowns per game in 2012.
Prediction: Northwestern 27 - Minnesota 7
forecast is calling for rain and possible storms and these conditions
will likely suppress the scoring output in this game. The Wildcats will
use the opportunity to get their ground game going against a team whose
defensive weakness is against the run. Meanwhile, the NU defense will
be able to contain the likely Gray-less Gopher offense as they bottle
up their run game and force some errant throws from Shortell. If
conditions are as bad as the current forecast (with heavy rain and
wind) this will certainly affect Minnesota's passing. Finally, look for
NU's special teams to once again provide a boost for the 'Cats as
Northwestern responds in a big way by pulling off a intra-division road
win. (Of course on the year I'm 0-5 ATS & 1-4 on the O/U, so feel
free to ignore everything I said here except for predicting a Wildcat
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