by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The luster of an unblemished record is officially gone. After blowing a fourth quarter lead at Penn State last week, Northwestern hopes to get back on the winning track at Minnesota. Divining other teams' conference win-loss records is a risky endeavor, but if NU has designs on staying in the Legends Division race, beating the Gophers, with much, much tougher challenges lying in the latter portion of the schedule, is a must. For Minnesota, who is looking for its first bowl bid since 2009, losing a divisional home game would put a huge dent in reaching the requisite six-win total. And so when you put two and two together, it's clear this game has massive implications for both sides. But college football -- unlike the NFL -- dictates that every contest produces a winner and a loser. NU's chances of achieving the former depend largely on Pat Fitzgerald's management of the quarterback position.
As you witnessed in last week's fourth-quarter meltdown, schematic circumstance led to Kain Colter's effective disappearance from the offensive attack. Instead, Trevor Siemian was under center, charged with the difficult task of preventing the Lions' comeback effort while the more-mobile Colter watched from the sidelines. It was clear the offense has lost its rhythm, its synchronicity with Siemian flinging wayward passes and thus putting the Wildcats in unfavorable down-and-distance situations -- yet Colter remained a helpless observer. Sticking with Siemian was questionable not only because his normally accurate arm appeared slightly off-target for most of the game. It ran counter to Fitzgerald's season-long blueprint for allocating quarterback playing time -- that whoever had the hot hand, whoever game the team the "best chance to win", would get the nod. Last week, with Siemian struggling, Colter was NU's best option. Whether Fitzgerald and his staff didn't realize this, or whether he expected Siemian to magically change course after a mostly ho-hum passing day, is an open question.
I'm starting to get the feeling that analyzing this quarterback tandem -- criticizing the specifics of every playing time nuance and coaching decision -- is a mostly futile effort. We can pinpoint errors in the way NU manages the most important position in the sport. It's never going to be perfect. But Fitzgerald and his staff have decided that Colter and Siemian work best in a random and unauthorized shuffling rotation. Refining and perfecting the precarious balance between Colter and Siemian usage is an unlikely outcome, if only because the easy critique for any offensive hiccup defaults back to the quarterback rotation and a perceived inefficiency in how its managed. Alas, quarterback rotation laments are best served for another column on another day. The task at hand is Minnesota. If the Wildcats survive the rigors of TCF Bank Stadium, the pain of last week's loss will fade into the periphery. Beating Penn State, which is starting to look like one of the Big Ten's best three or four teams, would have been a major confidence boost for NU. But a convincing takedown of the Gophers would be equally significant. As Legends Division co-inhabiters, conference title race implications are very much on the line in this one. And considering the way the division's other teams have looked thus far, any divisional triumph -- no matter the teams involved -- could help determine the Legends champ come December.
We hope this post finds you in good temperament as you proceed through whatever gameday routine accompanies these precious fall Saturdays. Hopefully our preview material has you ready for the upcoming matchup, but in case you missed anything, below we’ve compiled a last-minute study guide for any opponent queries that may yet stand unresolved. It never hurts to get some last-minute cramming in before watching your beloved Wildcats in game action. That said, read up, and enjoy the game!
The only Big Ten data point on the Gophers' body of work, a 31-13 loss at Iowa, contradicts an otherwise impressive season. If you have a good feel for the Gophers at this point, then you probably don't need to read this opponent breakdown. But after that result in Iowa City, does anyone know how good Minnesota is?
"Win the three phases"-- some coach at some high school. If you believe that mantra provides a solid template for winning a football game, then you might want to find out which team holds the advantage in each phase.
So the Wildcats lost last week. Their undefeated record is gone, obliterated, a fond memory from an era of optimism and promise. But don't go sour on NU's season just yet. The glass, writes our own Jonah Rosenblum, is very much "Half full."