Northwestern vs. Minnesota Preview

After practice on Tuesday, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald reminded his players of the team’s recent success against the Golden Gophers.

Indeed, the Wildcats have been quite successful against Minnesota in year’s past, but this season’s Golden Gophers team is better than it’s been since 2008. Minnesota has begun the season winners of four of five games and has benefitted from an improved rushing attack.

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian.

The Golden Gophers currently rank sixth in the Big Ten in rushing offense as they’ve averaged 167 rushing yards per game this season. Minnesota could match the formula Penn State used against the Wildcats last Saturday by maintaining possession.

Northwestern couldn’t get off the field against Penn State although the Nittany Lions ranks seventh in scoring offense and tenth in rushing offense. The Golden Gophers more than likely will start quarterback Max Shortel against the Wildcats but can still use MarQueis Gray in a running capacity.

Minnesota is coming off a bye week after losing its conference opener to Iowa. The Golden Gophers and Northwestern will play in an important legends division game. With Gray possibly returning after missing the last two games due to a sprained ankle, the bye week may have given the senior quarterback more time to heal.

“I would say that we’re cautiously optimistic that he can be available in some situations possibly,” said Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill on Tuesday.

While the Wildcats may have to adjust to Minnesota playing both Shortell and Gray on Saturday, the Golden Gophers must defend against Northwestern’s dual-threat quarterback tandem. Penn State did a great job in limiting both Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter, but Kill understands both players are equally dangerous.

We played against that before,” Kill said.  “I think they [Northwestern] do it probably more effectively than some of the other people have done it, because I don’t think it’s easy to figure out which it was, so to speak with the offensive coordinator.”

The Wildcats had an uncharacteristic game against the NIttany Lions, but a win on the road this Saturday could help this team separate itself from a crowded legends division. Northwestern is 1-1 in the conference but with a win, they would go a game up in the division.

If Northwestern wants to pull away with a victory, they will need to play better in all three phases, and duplicate their efforts on special teams from last week. Venric Mark returned his second punt of the season for a touchdown and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by Kill.

“We can’t afford to give Northwestern anything,” Kill said.  “If you give them something, they’re going to score and do something with it.  So you’ve got to play good, solid football against them, and that’s how they’ve been winning.”

Bold Prediction: Northwestern 31 Minnesota 20 

I’m currently 5-1 this season in picking Northwestern to win or lose. I think the Wildcats will bounce back and get back to rushing the ball effectively against Minnesota. Northwestern isn’t built for prolonged losing streaks and they will need a victory on the road before they face Nebraska at home on Oct. 20.

Follow on Twitter @EMod88