Game Preview


NU at Minnesota
Saturday, Nov. 1.  11:00 am CDT
WGN radio internet coverage.

Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Minnesota
by Jonathan Hodges


What a difference a week makes.  Prior to last week's games, this looked to be a potential matchup of 7-1 teams looking to duke it out for a spot in a New Years' Day bowl game, but the Wildcats didn't hold up their end of the bargain and instead head off to Minneapolis with their heads down.  Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) will face a resurgent Minnesota (7-1, 3-1) squad who is looking like the turnaround story of the year after coming away with only one win in 2007.  The Gophers are currently ranked 17th in the BCS standings (20th in the Coaches' Poll, Harris Poll, and AP Poll), and their only loss came against a tough OSU squad which featured Beanie Wells' comeback game following an injury early in the year.  Three of Minnesota's final four games are at home, and their toughest tests look to be NU and Iowa: so a huge turnaround from double-digit loss team in 2007 to double-digit win team in 2008 is quite possible.  Meanwhile, NU is reeling after its loss to Indiana: not only because the 'Cats lost a should-win game after coughing up 5 turnovers (and getting 0 back in return) which cost NU its 7th win (which would have locked up a bowl berth), but also because RB Sutton is likely lost for the year with a wrist injury that will require surgery and QB Bacher came out with an apparent hamstring injury following NU's last real shot at a game-winning drive (where he threw an INT) that will list him as questionable for this week's game.

The matchup between these two teams was a good one back in 2007: NU was down 35-14 midway through the 3rd quarter only to storm back with 3 TDs to tie the game in regulation (with the third and tying TD coming on a fourth down pass to Peterman at the edge of the end zone).  The game went to 2 OTs, with both teams scoring TDs in each session, and Minnesota elected to go for a 2-point conversion and the possible win in the 2nd OT.  Northwestern got good pressure from John Gill who forced a bad pass from QB Weber, and the game was over: a tight 49-48 NU victory (the second game in a row where NU scored 48+ points).  While Minnesota finished the year 1-11, that close game showed that they had an offense that was to be reckoned with, led by OC Dunbar (previously at Northwestern) and utilizing the dual-threat skills of QB Weber (at the time, a young redshirt freshman who still produced flashy numbers).  This season, HC Brewster brought in a highly touted class of recruits along with former Duke HC Roof as DC, who transformed the defense into a turnover machine.

And that leads into the key for the Gophers' success: they are #1 in the nation in turnover margin at +1.88/game.  The defense creates pressure up front (they are 19th in the nation in sacks with 2.75/game), they force fumbles and recover them (they are 1st in the Big Ten in fumble recoveries, with 12 on the year), and they force bad throws and catch them (they are 2nd in the conference in interceptions with 12).  Their total defense numbers in terms of yardage aren't astounding (their best ranking is rushing defense at 43rd nationally, giving up 121.5 yards/game), but those turnovers have given them a huge advantage in games and have propelled them to a 20th national ranking in scoring defense, giving up only 17.1 points/game.  On offense, they take good care of the ball and are 2nd in the conference (behind Penn State), having lost only 9 turnovers on the season (just over one per game), and, more importantly, are efficient and use good field position to get points on the board.  While QB Weber and his skilled WRs are dangerous, they rank only 46th nationally in scoring offense (28.3 points/game) and 70th nationally in total offense (356.1 yards/game), but when the team takes care of the football and the defense gets so many takeaways, one doesn't need to put up gaudy offensive stats to win games.

Northwestern, meanwhile, has imploded in its 2 losses of the year.  In those 2 games, NU has 8 turnovers and has received none in return.  Bacher's interception numbers loom large in NU's chances to win games when he starts: he's 11-0 when throwing fewer than 2 INTs and just 3-11 when throwing 2 or more INTs.  The offensive production just wasn't there against Indiana: while it was nice to see NU commit to the run (Sutton had 27 carries before leaving in the 3rd quarter), the 'Cats averaged only 3.2 yards/carry on the ground and also gave up 2 sacks - not a bad performance, but probably the worst blocking by the OL all year.  The Wildcats had only 316 yards of total offense and blew their chances at scores with 2 INTs in Indiana territory.  It is also still yet to be seen if Bacher will play significant time this coming week after being hampered with his hamstring injury, and Sutton will likely be out for some time following wrist surgery.  There are players that can step up, though, and they are Conteh (who has had 100+ yard rushing performances in relief of Sutton last year) and Kafka or Persa, who will be primarily charged with avoiding errors and spreading the ball to the offensive playmakers (note that Kafka and Persa are considered better runners than CJ, who did an admirable job running the ball against Indiana with 9.1 yards/carry).

While the Minnesota game looks like an uphill battle for the 'Cats, who appear to be on the skids, a hard-fought win would put them right back in the thick of things for a high profile bowl berth.  The Gophers, while solid on both sides of the ball, haven't exactly been impressive in any area except for turnover margin, so if NU can come out on top in that category, it will give the Wildcats a good chance of pulling off the upset.  It will be a tough test, though, as Minnesota is a tough team this year, as evidenced by their record alone, and the game will test the will of Northwestern as the landscape has seen a drastic change since last Saturday at about 11AM.

Minnesota by 6.5.

Who Should Win: Minnesota.  All the Gophers need to do is execute what they've been doing all season: creating turnovers and using a quick-strike offense to turn those into points.  Northwestern has had plenty of problems with turnovers in their 2 losses of the season and Minnesota will be licking their chops to get after what may be a backup backfield with Sutton and, likely, Bacher out for the game.  It's homecoming in Minneapolis and the Gophers will be out in force after posting a 7-1 record so far, propelling them to a 20th ranking in all national polls and a 17th ranking in the BCS, and they will be looking for a win to put them in strong contention for a New Years' Day bowl game.

Upset Factor: If Northwestern can win the turnover battle and get some kind of offense going, the 'Cats have a good chance of pulling out the win.  The NU defense is still strong and held up well last week, giving up 21 points in spite of 5 gifts (turnovers) by the offense and special teams.  While the Wildcat D hasn't generated any turnovers in NU's 2 losses, they have shown that it can make them happen in bunches: the 'Cats forced 5 each in NU's 2 Big Ten wins over Iowa and Purdue.  And on offense, the OL has still been performing above expectations (despite a subpar game against Indiana), the WRs still have enough talent to make things happen, and Conteh is a more than serviceable backup RB.  QB will be the biggest question, but if Kafka or Persa can put it together in practice this week if Bacher is unavailable and can protect the football, a win is plausible.

What to Look For:

Northwestern Offense/Minnesota Defense: Nobody really knows what the Wildcats' offense will look like on Saturday because with Bacher questionable and Kafka not looking so hot at the end of the Indiana game, nobody really knows who will be in at QB.  Although it's possible for CJ to play Saturday, it's unlikely due to the hamstring injury - without mobility in the pocket and the ability to run, Bacher's game would be severely hampered.  So, it looks like the job will be Kafka's for the taking, as Fitz and company have him tabbed as the #2 guy, but I wouldn't count out Persa completely - Dan is a guy that excelled as a dual-threat QB in high school and has enough athleticism to play on special teams this year.  In any case, both Kafka and Persa provide much larger running threats than Bacher, which will give something for the Minnesota defense to think about.  The key to NU's offense in this game, though, is protecting the football.  Minnesota has lived off of turnovers this year (as mentioned throughout this preview), and the 'Cats must avoid those giveaways at all costs.  This is a difficult situation, given that NU will likely be puttng out a much less experienced QB, but could also play to the strengths of either of those backups, given that they are solid runners.  The first thing that the QBs should do is hang onto the football and take off if the pass isn't there.  Wait for the defense or special teams to put NU in scoring position and don't risk a turnover, especially in NU territory, as the Gophers will jup all over the opportunity.  And by showing that the QB is a substantial running threat early on, things should open up a bit downfield for the 'Cats.  A large key to this game will be the play of the Northwestern OL against a solid defensive front; while NU's pass blocking has been solid this year, they have benefitted from CJ's quick release and mobility which have avoided some potential sacks.  Meanwhile, the run blocking has left some to be desired, which is something that must be shored up if NU is to win this football game.  Minnesota's defensive front consists of monster DE VanDeSteeg (6.5 sacks, 12 TFLs, and 35 tackles on the year), DTs Small and Brown, and DE Onwuachi.  The LBs are also a force in the middle, and at times Minnesota switches to a 4-3 look and sends one or more LBs into the backfield; they consist of Lawrence (3.5 sacks, 6.5 TFLs, 36 tackles), Hightower (1 sack, 5.5 TFLs, 35 tackles), Davis (2 sacks, 5.5 TFLs, 30 tackles), and Campell (3 sacks, 4 TFLs, and 48 tackles) - who leads the team in tackles.  The 'Cats OL must be aware of all of them as they are capable of sending multiple combinations of LBs on a blitz.  In the secondary, the Gophers have been taking care of business: the DBs have accounted for 9 INTs and 25 PBUs.  Safeties Theret (47 tackles, 3 INTs, 4 PBUs) and Brock (47 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBUs) lead the way alongside CBs Simmons (38 tackles, 2 INTs, 12 PBUs) and Sherels (26 tackles, 2 INTs, 7 PBUs).  There are a lot of playmakers on this defense who have put up gaudy stats, but the fact is that the unit overall is opportunistic: they force turnovers by generating pressure up front and use that to kill drives.  Opponents have been able to move the ball on the Gophers, and the 'Cats must use an efficient, balanced attack to do that, although NU will need some solid runs to open up passing downfield.  Hopefully, the experience of Conteh coupled with the running ability of Kafka or Persa will help NU churn out some yards on the ground and the OL will show some growth in their run blocking.

Northwestern Defense/Minnesota Offense: The Wildcat defense faces a big test against the Gophers, as they must make up for injuries on the offensive side of the ball and attempt to contain the Minnesota attack to give NU a chance to win.  First off, turnovers: in NU's 2 losses of the year, the 'Cats generated no turnovers, which contributed to a -8 turnover margin in those 2 games.  Turnovers are a must against Minnesota to give the 'Cats a chance to win since the Gophers will be able to churn out yards with the Dunbar-concocted spread attack, and, unfortunately for the 'Cats, Minnesota ranks 14th nationally in turnovers lost, having only given up 9 on the year.  And interceptions have been even more difficult to come by: Weber has only thrown 3 on the year.  Fortunately, Minnesota's OL has allowed pressure to get to the QB, allowing 2.1 sacks/game (73rd nationally), and that's something that NU has excelled at doing (NU ranks 12th nationally with 3 sacks/game).  Wootton, Gill, Mims, and Browne must step up here and not only put pressure on Weber, but complete the task and make the tackle, since he poses a significant running threat (he has 70 carries on the year for 107 yards and 3 TDs).  Eskridge provides a running threat with 520 yards and 7 TDs on the ground this year and he must be contained by the DL and the NU LB corps of Williams, Davie, and Kwateng.  Davie's name hasn't been called a whole lot in recent weeks after starting off the season strong, and he must become a factor off the edge to boost NU's defensive effort.  And in the secondary, things must get better after biting on two play fakes that ended up in long passing TDs for the Hoosiers, since Minnesota features WR Decker who has 66 receptions, 833 yards, and 5 TDs this year (that's over 100 yards/game for those counting at home).  WRs Kuznia, Simmons, Tow-Arnett, and Green also have over 100 yards on the year, meaning that NU's defensive backfield must beware of multiple weapons.  McManis must play "lockdown" corner against Decker, while Smith and Mabin must be solid in pass coverage.  And Phillips will need to continue his hard-hitting ways to try and knock the ball loose and generate some turnovers.  Expect the Minnesota offense to generate yards and points, and the key to containing the attack will be the performance of the NU DL in creating pressure and forcing errors: in Minnesota's worst offensive performance of the year (a 16-7 win over Indiana), they allowed 4 sacks and had 2 fumbles.

Special Teams: This is an area where NU needs improvement after missing an extra point against Indiana and losing a fumble during a kickoff return.  Villarreal has continued to be solid (he hit 2 FGs in Bloomington) but not great (20 of 22 on XPs and 15 of 18 on FGs), and he must be able to put points on the board when given a chance against such an opportunistic team.  Demos has been stellar on punts and, once again, nailed a couple inside the 20 against Indiana, and that execution must continue as well.  On kickoffs, NU's coverage has been good, and Demos has been getting good distance on the ball (NU averages 19.4 kickoff return yards allowed, good for 28th in the nation), which must be continued since Minnesota presents a threat on kick returns (they average 24.1 yards/kick return, 17th nationally).  Meanwhile, the 'Cats must get something going in the return game: punt returns have been abysmal (6.9 yards/return, 81st in the nation), and must hold onto the football on kick returns (fumbled kick returns have occurred in NU's 2 losses this season) - and if the 'Cats do hold on, they aren't too bad (22.0 yards/kick return, 49th in the nation).  Minnesota's kicking game has been about even with NU's performance on the year: Monroe is 26 of 28 for XPs and 8 of 11 for FGs.  Northwestern must look for an edge here if things aren't going their way: whether it be a big return, a block, or forcing a turnover, a big swing in field position or scoring on special teams may give NU an advantage that it will need to win this game.

- Northwestern's 2-deep
- 3rd Down Conversions: While NU's offense may not be generating the points many expected, what it has done is put the 'Cats in manageable 3rd down situations and has allowed the 'Cats to convert 48.1% of those chances (15th nationally).  On the flipside, the NU D is doing an excellent job forcing opponents off the field after 3rd down, as they have allowed a solid 30.7% conversion rate (14th nationally).  Meanwhile, Minnesota's offense has not had as much luck, converting only 37.8% of their 3rd down opportunities (76th nationally) and their defense has allowed a 33.3% conversion rate (28th nationally).
- Red Zone Conversions: Both teams have been able to score from the red zone (Minnesota ranks 20th nationally at 89% and NU 33rd at 87%), but it's the Gophers who have been able to punch it in more for TDs (20 TDs and 5 FGs in 28 drives) while the 'Cats have been forced to kick more often (20 TDs and 14 FGs in 39 drives).  The ability to get 7 instead of 3 will be key for NU's chances in this game.  The teams will be facing each others' defenses, who are about equal in red zone defense rates: NU ranks 24th nationally allowing a 74% conversion rate (12 TDs and 8 FGs in 27 drives) while the Gophers rank 27th nationally at 75% allowed (5 TDs and 7 FGs in 16 drives).
- Series History: Northwestern and Minnesota have engaged in some exciting and wild matchups this decade, including the aforementioned 49-48 2OT win by NU a year ago.  Back in 2002, Minnesota beat NU by a final of 45-42 as the 'Cats' final drive to tie or win came up just short.  In 2001, NU pulled off a win on a very wet day in Evanston thanks to a 71 yard punt return for a TD, with a final score of 23-17.  And in 2000 was the "victory right" win by NU (41-35) on the final play of the game where the 'Cats fought back from a 21-point defecit to pull out an astounding win.
- Metrodome: It will be an interesting final trip to the HHH Metrodome for the 'Cats, as Minnesota will be unveiling a new outdoor stadium starting next year.  It will also be interesting to see what kind of support Minnesota will garner for the game, being ranked in the top 20 and touting a 7-1 record.  Hopefully, the 'Cats will find a way to spoil their final homecoming in the dome like NU did back in 2000.
- End of October: Thankfully, the game falls on Nov. 1 for NU, who, after going 5-0 in September, had a scary month by going 1-2 in October.
- Bowl Positioning: This game is huge in terms of bowl positioning for both teams.  For NU, picking up a 7th win will all but guarantee a bowl berth, and will likely keep NU out of Detroit.  Remember that bowls must select teams with a winning record (7 or more wins) before 6-6 teams, and with Wisconsin and Illinois both sitting at 4 wins each (and having to face relatively tough schedules the rest of the way), that 7th win is big.  And if the 'Cats can reach 7-2, they would be right in the thick of things for a top bowl berth, since both MSU and Minnesota would also have 2 losses.  Meanwhile, the Gophers would like to continue their trek towards a January 1 bowl, and reaching 8-1 with winable games the rest of the way would be an excellent way of accomplishing that.

Injury Report:

Northwestern: SB Dunsmore (out for season, knee), CB Vaughn (out for season, shoulder), LB Rejae Johnson (out for season, shoulder), LB Arrington (out for season, knee), RB Sutton (likely out for season, wrist), QB Bacher (questionable, hamstring).

Minnesota: WR Spry (susepension), QB Weber (probable, nose), RB Bennett (out for season, knee), QB Gray (out for season, academics).

After getting by the first half of the season without any crippling injuries, things have come crashing down to earth the past 2 games for the 'Cats.  Against Purdue, senior MLB Arrington went down for the year with a knee injury, although Williams has been a competent replacement in the middle.  But then against Indiana, senior RB Sutton went down with a wrist injury that required surgery and senior QB Bacher went down with a hamstring injury that will potentially hamper him for some time.  While Sutton's combination of running and receiving is hard to duplicate, senior RB Conteh is a more than competent backup, having started in place of Sutton numerous times last season.  The real issue, though, is QB, where Bacher is backed up by Kafka, who has 4 career starts (2-2 record), but hasn't shown even close to the passing skills that Bacher has.  And behind him is talented, but untested, Dan Persa who has played on special teams in this, his redshirt freshman, season and hasn't thrown a collegiate pass.  NU's offense sputtered even with CJ in the game last week and collapsed after he went down, so finding a QB that can be trusted to run the offense is key if CJ can't go.

Meanwhile, the Gophers are still on the good side of the 8-ball and have experienced few major injuries.  While they lost RB Bennett for the season, they have more than made up for it with the efforts of Eskridge and the running ability of Weber.  And while WR Spry was a starter, he was not a top target and will be replaced by Green, who had a huge 71 yard reception last week at Purdue.  Weber got a little dinged up but his play should not be affected.

Prediction: Northwestern 17 - Minnesota 21

I want to pick the 'Cats in this one as it's a perfect opportunity to show that the defense can propel NU to a win as an underdog and put Northwestern right back in the thick of Big Ten bowl positioning, but after last week's performance, I just can't do it.  The fact remains, though, that Minnesota is beatable IF the Wildcats can win the turnover battle.  The Gophers have lived off of turnovers this year and the key is to force some on defense and protect the football on offense, which will be a challenge with a new starting backfiled after injuries to Sutton (which will likely keep him out for the rest of the regular season) and Bacher (which looks to sideline him potentially for a couple weeks).  Outside of the turnovers, NU and Minnesota are very comparable in terms of statistics, so the game will likely come down to the turnover margin.  After an offensive shootout last season, look for a defensive battle this season: both teams feature new DCs this year (Hankwitz at NU and Roof at Minnesota) who have done solid jobs thus far shoring up their respective defensive units.  This is a key game for both teams and a big chance for NU to show how it can bounce back after a disappointing loss.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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