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Three Big Things: Minnesota

Every game hinges on a few critical "things" -- players, schemes or specific plays that could play a big role in deciding the winner and loser. It's an important concept with a blunt title; "things" are important, however vague they might sound. InsideNU will attempt to identify the three biggest ones in advance of Northwestern's game each week. This week's matchup: Minnesota.

Ra’Shede Hageman

When looking for “Three Big Things” about this week’s matchup, Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman can’t be ignored. At 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds, Hageman has as much physical talent as any defensive lineman in the nation. Coming in to this week, rates Hageman as the second rated defensive tackle and 30th overall prospect for the 2014 NFL Draft. Although he’s off to a slow start in terms of getting to the quarterback this season, he still leads the Gophers in tackles for loss with 6.5, putting him fourth in the Big Ten. Northwestern will most likely have to use double teams and keep extra protection in the backfield to help neutralize Hageman in the run game. Also, with Kain Colter banged up, it seems as though Trevor Siemian will take most, if not all, the snaps against Minnesota. Although Siemian has shown some ability to escape pressure, keeping the pocket clean—which should be done, in part, by controlling Hageman—will give him time to find open receivers down the field.

Northwestern’s rush defense vs. Minnesota’s rush offense

On the other side of the ball, Northwestern has struggled all season to stop the run, especially of late. The Wildcats gave up over 250 rushing yards on over five yards per carry in back-to-back games against Ohio State and Wisconsin. Through Minnesota’s 4-0 start to the year, the offense racked up 282.25 rushing yards per game. But like Northwestern, Minnesota has struggled in Big Ten play. The Gophers garnered just 1.1 yards per carry against Iowa and 3.3 yards per carry against Michigan. The battle between these two struggling units (Minnesota’s rush offense against Northwestern’s rush defense) could set the tone early. Northwestern will have to contain three rushing threats in dual-threat quarterback Mitch Leidner and running backs David Cobb and Rodrick Williams Jr. Because Minnesota’s running backs don’t have the individual talent that Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde or Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and James White have, Northwestern should be able to improve on their performance in the trenches.

Red zone touchdown percentage

For a school that boasts its academic ingenuity like Northwestern does, it should be clear that seven points is better than three points. Obviously, Pat Fitzgerald and the coaching staff know this, but repeatedly Northwestern has gotten into the red zone, coming away with field goals. The Wildcats rank 81st in the country with only 57.69 percent of their red zone drives ending in a touchdown. The fact that kicker Jeff Budzien leads the Big Ten and is 10th in the nation in field goals made per game is not a statistic of which to be particularly proud. Against Ohio State, for example, Northwestern scored on three consecutive drives, but only came away with a field goal each time. Finish a drive off with a touchdown on any of those drives and the game changes drastically. Northwestern is more talented and better coached than Minnesota. They should have no problem winning this game. But if Northwestern continues to fail to capitalize on drives with touchdowns, Minnesota could hang around and this game could get ugly. Even though Northwestern might be able to escape with a win against Minnesota with Budzien leading them to victory, they probably won’t fair to well against division rivals Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State.