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Why Northwestern will/won't win: Minnesota

Setting aside the lopsided, guarantee games many FBS teams often play in the nonconference part of their schedules, every college football game typically allows the possibility that either team could win. Sometimes the odds are heavily stacked in one team’s favor, while other games are more evenly matched. But as this awesomely unpredictable sport has proven time and again, no team’s chances of winning should ever be completely dismissed. There is always a way.

That logic informs a new weekly feature here at InsideNU. It’s called “why Northwestern will/won’t win.” Excuse the bland, clunky title. At least it gets right to the point, which is to explain why the Wildcats – wait for it – will or won't win their upcoming game. Some arguments won’t be as convincing as others, but that’s impossible to avoid, anyway: not all games have tiny point spreads, after all. There is, but for a few exceptional cases, a favorite and an underdog. Explaining the latter’s (whether that be Northwestern or not) path to hypothetical victory will require some creativity. Some cases will be easier to address. 

We begin this week with Northwestern’s matchup against Minnesota. 

Why Northwestern will win

The first order of business for Northwestern is burying the dismaying memory of last week’s trip to Madison. The Badgers crushed Northwestern in every way a college football team can crush its opponent: on the ground, through the air, on the scoreboard, in the minds of fans and poll voters. After winning their first four games of the season, and narrowly losing their fifth, the Wildcats were widely viewed as the best team in the Legends Division. Now most people think they will finish third or fourth. One game changed a lot, apparently.

The process of moving on from Wisconsin and looking ahead to Minnesota began Monday, when players were bombarded with water balloons in a morning team meeting. The Wildcats seemed to have put the Wisconsin loss behind them, though I would argue it’s impossible to wipe the mind clean (especially not within the next week) of a crushing beatdown like the one the Wildcats suffered Saturday. Either way, Northwestern entered this week with plenty of things to correct.

The Gophers – who, like Wisconsin before them, enter Saturday with an extra week’s rest under their belts – will be playing (one has to think) with some kind of emotional chip on their shoulder, as coach Jerry Kill, who has suffered five gameday seizures since taking over Minnesota’s head coaching job in 2011, continues his open-ended leave of absence to focus on treating and managing his epilepsy.

Taking the Gophers lightly (4-1, 0-2 Big Ten) would put Northwestern in danger of dropping to 0-3 in conference play. It can avoid that mark by getting back to what it does best: running balanced offense, staying disciplined on defense and – the overarching theme of all of the Wildcats’ two losses, according to Fitzgerald – “executing.” That sounds simple enough, but after watching Northwestern fail to execute so many times at Wisconsin Saturday, what makes one think it can simply turn things around in the span of seven days? A positive week of practices is a good start, but it will take a lot more than a few good reps in mostly non-contact scout team drills for Northwestern to prove last weekend’s performance was more an anomaly than a performance reflective of its true capabilities.

Northwestern should be able to reestablish its offensive identity against Minnesota’s porous defense, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten (5.86 yards per play) and is especially vulnerable against the pass, yielding 8.0 yards per attempt through six games this season. Venric Mark and Kain Colter (depending on their health), Northwestern’s two most important offensive players, will need to infuse the offense with the explosiveness and playmaking ability it didn’t have against Wisconsin. The offensive line will need to do a better job protecting Trevor Siemian, who took five sacks Saturday, but should be able to exploit a hobbled Gophers secondary if kept upright. That means accounting for Gophers defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who has 6.5 tackles for loss on the season, will likely be a first-round draft pick next April and of whom Fitzgerald said earlier this week, “I’m glad he’s a senior.”

Another key for the Wildcats will be slowing down Minnesota’s ground attack, the fourth-best in the Big Ten, including dual-threat quarterback Mitch Leidner, who will get his second career start against the Wildcats and should be more comfortable running the offense after the open week.

This team is nowhere near as good as Wisconsin is, and Northwestern should have few issues beating it in convincing fashion. The Wildcats have better talent and athleticism across the board, and if they – there’s that word again – simply “execute,” they should bank their first Big Ten win of 2013 without straining too much. This game isn’t just winnable; it’s a game Northwestern should, and given its current place in the Legends Division race, needs to take.

Why Northwestern won’t win

The negative vibes of blowout losses can linger, and Northwestern may not be able to shake off the residual emotional effects of last week’s defeat. Maybe it will enter Saturday’s game still reeling, still wondering what went wrong against the Badgers.

That mindset could put Northwestern in a hole early against the well-rested Gophers, who – with Leidner under center – are more dangerous on offense, particularly on the ground, than most folks give them credit for. There were times Saturday, as well as against Ohio State, when Northwestern was being physically dominated at the line of scrimmage (InsideNU’s Nate Williams aptly described how the Buckeyes’ offensive line was able to “Big Boy” the Wildcats’ defensive tackles). If that happens against Minnesota, the Wildcats will be forced to commit more defenders near the line of scrimmage, which would allow Leidner to target receivers in favorable one-on-one situations.

The Gophers’ offense struggled in losses to Iowa and Michigan, but maybe the bye week – and the first-team reps for Leidner that came with it – gave Minnesota the time it needed to make adjustments, tweaks it will unveil against an unsuspecting Wildcats defense this week. If the Gophers catch Northwestern off guard, and Leidner’s running ability takes Minnesota’s running attack to another level, the Wildcats could be staring at their third straight loss.

In a spirited effort under defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, Minnesota’s acting head coach, the Gophers – who need to spring at least one upset over their next six games to become bowl eligible – could challenge a Northwestern team still trying to get over one of the most jarring losses in recent program history.