by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
As Northwestern tries to bounce back from a loss to Penn State, we look at who has the edge in each phase of the game as NU faces Minnesota.
When Northwestern has the ball
Talent-wise, this isn’t even a debate. Northwestern has some of the best offensive playmakers in the Big Ten in Kain Colter and Venric Mark, but the Wildcats’ offense was held back last week against Penn State and could never get into rhythm. The week before, it set a school record for yardage against Indiana. Which offense will we see this week? The most likely answer is somewhere in between, as the Minnesota defense isn’t as good as Penn State’s or as bad as Indiana’s. However, the most important aspect of the game will be whether NU improves its use of Colter and “co-starting” quarterback Trevor Siemian. If used effectively, NU has proven it can move the ball, especially with Colter and Mark running the zone read and Siemian passing with Colter as a receiver. But the Wildcats’ coaches have to have a good feel for the flow of the game to get a rhythm going. After a rough week and facing a weaker opponent, they should be able to get it done.
When Minnesota has the ball
With MarQueis Gray’s return at quarterback questionable for the Gophers, Northwestern will be forced to prepare for both Gray and backup Max Shortell. Despite reports that Shortell will likely start and should see the majority of the snaps, Pat Fitzgerald said on Tuesday that NU is preparing for Gray to start. Gray is a dual-threat quarterback, while Shortell is more of a passer, but Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said the gameplan will stay relatively the same regardless of who is in.
NU’s defense must improve in all phases this week, especially in the pass rush, where the Wildcats had been solid before the Penn State game. The pass rush must put pressure on the quarterback because NU will be without Demetrius Dugar, Jimmy Hall and Hunter Bates in the secondary. None of them would have started, but there will be little depth for the Cats’ secondary. Given NU’s struggles in the secondary last week, Minnesota gets a slight edge here, but the Cats certainly have the ability to shut down Shortell.
Jeff Budzien didn’t get any chances to add to his perfect field goal record against Penn State, marking the second game this season in which Northwestern did not attempt a field goal. The Wildcats are in better shape in that area than the Gophers, however, as Minnesota kicker Jordan Wettstein is just 4-for-9 on the season, including a miss between 20 and 29 yards and two misses between 30 and 39 yards.
This will be a matchup of arguably the two best returners in the conference in NU’s Venric Mark and Minnesota’s Troy Stoudemire. Mark is the first Wildcat returner to take two punts back for touchdowns since 1949 and Stoudemire has been a consistent force in the return game for the last few years.
Both teams will neutralize each other’s return games, but in the kicking game, NU has a clear edge. And in a game most are expecting to be close, having a reliable kicker could be invaluable.
Minnesota will jump out of the gate early, but the Northwestern secondary will settle down after that, and with the exception of a few big plays, will hold the Gophers’ offense in check. The NU offense will start slow, but will eventually find its groove, as Colter and Mark use the zone read to carve through the Minnesota defense. Expect Colter to see the majority of the snaps — expect the same from Shortell, as well — but Colter will also get a number of targets in the receiving game, returning to the form we saw against Indiana.
Score prediction: Northwestern 31, Minnesota 28