Game Preview


Saturday, October 13, 2012  11:00 am CDT
ESPN 1000 Radio

Game Preview: Minnesota
by Jonathan Hodges

The 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.

The 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

This 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).

Upset Factor: 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 working.

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.

Special Teams: 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).
- NU 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 one-point victories).
- The Wildcats have outscored their cumulative opponents in each of the first three quarters through this season, including by 37 in the second quarter.
- Northwestern averages 2.7 rushing touchdowns per game in 2012.

Prediction: Northwestern 27 - Minnesota 7
The 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 victory!)

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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