With two losses already in the conference, Northwestern is in a must-win situation against Minnesota this week. Let’s take a look at which team has the edge in each situation of the game.
When Minnesota has the ball
Minnesota has the fourth-ranked rushing attack in the Big Ten, and the Gophers are starting redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner this week, who is a solid runner in his own right. Northwestern has struggled against mobile quarterbacks this year, most notably Ohio State’s Braxton Miller. But Mitch Leidner is not Braxton Miller. He’s making only his second career start and the Wildcats should be able to take advantage of his inexperience.
Even if NU contains Leidner, it still has David Cobb and Rodrick Williams to deal with, both of who average over five yards per carry. Of course it is dangerous to sell out to stop the run, but the Wildcats do want to make the Gophers beat them through the air. Minnesota doesn’t have any big threats in the passing game so if NU’s secondary can keep the plays in front of them, they should be able to shut down the Gophers’ offense.
When Northwestern has the ball
Northwestern’s offensive line cannot have another game like they had last week, giving up seven sacks against Wisconsin. Unfortunately for them, Minnesota has one of the better defensive linemen in the conference in Ra’Shede Hageman. The Cats will have to use a lot of plays outside the pocket, but with their two best offensive runners, quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark, questionable for the game, those plays might be limited.
The key will be getting just enough protection from the line to allow quarterback Trevor Siemian to get the ball downfield—Minnesota’s pass defense ranks 11th in the Big Ten.
Much of the offensive game plan hinges on whether Colter and Mark play, but even with those two healthy, the Cats have failed to put together four consecutive quarters of truly solid offensive play this season. I can’t give them the edge until they prove for more than a quarter or two that they can play up to their capabilities. NU should have the edge here, but they should have had the edge in previous weeks as well and ended up faltering in some aspect or another.
Northwestern doesn’t generally return punts, and Minnesota’s punt returners aren’t great, so the teams are even in that category. Minnesota has a pretty good kick returner in Marcus Jones, who averages 31 yards per return and has a return for a touchdown already this year. He will be one that NU wants to keep an eye on because he can change the momentum of the game. Northwestern’s kick return game is up in the air with Mark questionable to play, but Matt Harris has done a respectable job in Mark’s absence so they shouldn’t be at too much of a disadvantage in terms of field position.
Although Jeff Budzien hasn’t lived up to the Groza Award standards that everyone expected this season, he has been more than competent, making 11 of 13 field goals including 10 of 10 from under 40 yards. Minnesota’s kicker, Chris Hawthorne, has made seven of nine field goals, but his two misses were from over 50 yards.