Northwestern vs Minnesota : Minnesota closes out its home schedule against Northwestern on Saturday. The Gophers lead the all-time series against the Wildcats 53-35-5 and have won three of the last five meetings between the schools. The Gophers are 30- 14-3 all-time at home against the Wildcats and have won two straight at TCF Bank Stadium against Northwestern (won 29-12 in 2016 and 24-17 in 2014). Northwestern won last year’s meeting, as they tripped up the Gophers in Evanston, Ill.
.Minnesota will celebrate Senior Day on Saturday and will honor its seniors prior to its game against Northwestern. The Gophers will recognize and thank seniors Blake Cashman, Emmit Carpenter, Jerry Gibson, Donnell Greene, Jacob Huff, Julian Huff, Payton Jordahl, Gary Moore, Antonio Shenault, Rodney Smith and Jared Weyler for their contributions to the program. Smith is participating in senior day activities with his class, but will return for a sixth year in 2019.
3. Minnesota leads the Big Ten and ranks No. 11 in the nation in yards per completion at 14.59. Minnesota has 25 receptions of at least 25 yards and receivers Tyler Johnson (12), Rashod Bateman (7), Chris Autman-Bell (4) and Seth Green (1) all have at least one catch of more than 25 yards. Last year, Minnesota had 14 total receptions of 25 yards or more in 12 games. Minnesota had 18 receptions of 25 yards or more in 13 games in 2016 and 25 in 13 games in 2015. Bateman’s 86-yard catch at Illinois is the team’s longest of the year and longest since 2003 (school record 96 yards, Asad Abdul-Khaliq to Jared Ellerson at Northwestern). Minnesota had five plays (two pass, three rushes) of 30+ yards against Purdue. Minnesota’s defense kept Purdue’s potent offense in check, as the Boilers’ longest play on offense was 17 yards. Purdue was 0-for-12 on third down and had negative 2 rushing yards with 10 minutes left in the game (ended game with 88 rushing yards).
4. Minnesota has two 30-plus point Big Ten wins in its last 10 league games under Coach Fleck, as it beat Nebraska by 33 in 2017 and Purdue by 31 in 2018. Prior to Fleck, Minnesota had two 30-point Big Ten wins in its previous 100 conference games from Oct. 30, 2004 to Nov. 26, 2015, as it beat Indiana by 37 in 2006 and Iowa by 37 in 2014. Minnesota’s 38-point margin of victory (won 48-10) this year against New Mexico State was its largest ever at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota had previously beaten Iowa (2014) and New Hampshire (2012) by 37 points at TCF Bank Stadium. The 38-point win was Minnesota’s largest victory margin since 2006 (beat Temple 62-0).
5. The Gophers have 112 players on the roster and 58 of those players – or 51.7 percent – are freshmen. That’s the highest number in the nation. Virginia is next at 50 percent and is followed by Wake Forest (49.1 percent) and UCF (48.03 percent). The Gophers have 78 underclassmen (69.6% of the roster), which ranks tenth in college football.
1) Clayton Thorsen, quarterback: He certainly hasn’t been very good. After leading NU to back-to-back wins over Michigan State and Rutgers, Thorson’s performance has been uneven. The four-year starter has seemed out of rhythm and turnover-prone for good chunks of the last month. He threw three interceptions against Wisconsin and two more against Iowa. But then again, Northwestern has won three of its last four and Thorson has played his part. He accounted for three touchdowns against Wisconsin and made a perfect throw to Bennett Skowronek to clinch the Big Ten West.
2) Isaiah Bowser, running back: Bowser is a big, physical running back who has established himself as NU’s best rusher the past four weeks. He’s only a freshman, but he’s been able to handle a starter’s workload and grind out positive yards on every carry. He’s improving every week.
3) Northwestern defense: Secondary depth was always going to be a problem for Northwestern, and the Wildcats could ill-afford any injuries. Now, NU is missing 4 of its top 5 defensive backs, including Hartage, who is one of the best cover corners in the Big Ten. Guys like Cam Ruiz and Travis Whillock have stepped up, but I’d expect Minnesota to rack up some yards through the air on Saturday.
As Bill Connelly noted on Tuesday, NU is great at limiting teams in passing downs, when the Wildcats often employ nickel and dime packages. NU is also great at limiting opponents to field goals instead of touchdowns.
1. Find a way to stay on schedule offensively: The big reason why Northwestern’s won 13 of their last 14 Big Ten games is because of their stingy defense.
Bill Connelly of SB Nation wrote about this Wildcat team this week, and one passage in particular stood out.
“Stop the run, leverage opponents into passing downs, then force a punt. There are worse defensive recipes than that. Northwestern hasn’t been great at defending the pass this year, but most of that’s on standard downs. Once opponents are behind schedule, the drive ends.
NU is 16th in Passing Downs S&P+. Despite a pass rush that is both lacking and singular (Gaziano has five sacks, and no one else has more than two), opposing quarterbacks are not finding open men on second- or third-and-long. It was key to beating Purdue (3.8 yards per passing downs pass attempt), Michigan State (4.7), Rutgers (2.8), and Wisconsin (3.9), and it’s where senior cornerback Montre Hartage (14 passes defensed) shines.
If you’re able to stay on schedule, you can score a good number of points on Northwestern. Nebraska did, after all, and so did Notre Dame and, damningly, Akron. But this defense reins you in most of the time, and if the Wildcats’ offense does anything, NU will be in position to win games in the fourth quarter.”
So what does Minnesota have to do? Get to third down and manageable. But the question becomes, how do they do that?
Northwestern is one the top run defenses in the Big Ten, and you look at some recent running back performances against them.
- Michigan State’s La’Darius Jefferson and Connor Heyward rushed 11 times for 27 yards in a 29-19 Wildcat win.
- Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor rushed 11 times for 46 yards.
- Iowa running backs combined to rush 16 times for 50 yards.
Minnesota’s running game has seen growth in recent weeks with an offensive line and tight end group that have been opening massive holes, but this will be the Gophers most difficult test in the Big Ten yet.
So if they can’t move it on the ground, Tanner Morgan is going to have to push it through the air.
Northwestern’s without four of their top five defensive backs this week, including their best DB in Montre Hartage. So if you’re Kirk Ciarrocca and this Gopher pass-catching core, you’re likely to have more on your plate this Saturday than what we saw on only 20 pass attempts last week.
If Minnesota is able to put up points here, which they’ve done at home in Big Ten play averaging over 35 points a game, that’s an absolute recipe for success.
2: Keeping Clayton Thorson in his cold spell: Northwestern has won three of their last four games including wins over Iowa and Wisconsin, but it really hasn’t been because of their quarterback Clayton Thorson.
His stats in the last four games for the Wildcats?
52.8% completion percentage for an average of 145 yards per game, with a touchdown to interception ratio of 3:5.
That’s pretty bad.
Yes, I’m aware that Iowa, Wisconsin and Notre Dame are damn solid defensively, but Thorson has absolutely been off his game as the offense has scored over 21 points just once in the last month.
To keep Thorson running cold, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is going to have to stop the run. Something that Minnesota did last week against Purdue, but Northwestern running back Isaiah Bowser has been finding success of late.
He’s averaging 28 carries a game for 120 yards and a score in his last four games, including a 165 yard performance against Iowa last week on 31 carries.
It’s been hot or cold, and no in between for this run defense, but the nice thing is, the Wildcats are one of the least explosive offenses in the country. Northwestern ranks 125th of 129 FBS teams in generating explosive plays, so for a Gopher defense in recent weeks that’s been struggling there, this is a great thing on paper.
So if Minnesota’s able to stop the run and force Thorson to beat them, that’s likely great news for Gopher fans.
3: Win the turnover battle: If you’re going to win in the Big Ten, regardless of opponent, you’re going to have to win the turnover battle.
Minnesota, in Big Ten play, is dead last in turnover margin with a -8 margin. 18 (!!) turnovers in seven games, and just ten takeaways.
Northwestern’s pass defense has more interceptions than touchdowns allowed, so Tanner Morgan is going to have to pick his spots as this Wildcat defense is opportunistic.
If Minnesota’s offense can take care of the ball like they did last week, they’re going to give their defense a shot. You can’t allow Northwestern to get cheap points on a short field.
It’s Senior Day for Minnesota, and the Gophers are coming in off their best win of the 2018 season. Northwestern just clinched the Big Ten West, and may be resting some players to get them healthy for Indianapolis.
If PJ Fleck’s team is going to be bowling this year, it’s a game that Minnesota has to have. It’s going to be close going into the fourth quarter, but I see this Gopher team hanging on.