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Weekend rewind, week 8: Northwestern vs. Minnesota

Every week, InsideNU writers Chris Johnson and Kevin Trahan will wrap up Northwestern game coverage with some final thoughts (we’ll try and stay away from topics addressed in game columns), along with one big takeaway from the Big Ten. Following Northwestern’s 20-17 loss to Minnesota, here’s the eighth edition of the Weekend Rewind:

Final thoughts on NU

Can Northwestern get bowl eligible?

It’s fair to raise the question.

On Saturday, Northwestern suffered its third loss in a row to a middling Minnesota team, dropping it's record to 4-3 (0-3 Big Ten) and seemingly transforming its postseason outlook from “Rose Bowl potential” to “6-6 would be nice.” The Wildcats have sunken to a place few thought possible heading into this once-promising 2013 season. As we look ahead to the remainder of Big Ten play, is it possible Northwestern could, for the first time since the 2007 season, fail to qualify for a bowl game?

To avoid that once-unthinkable outcome, Northwestern needs to win two of its next five games, which are: at Iowa, at Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State and at Illinois. Looking at those opponents in still time, the Wildcats’ best chances for wins appear to be the Iowa and Illinois games. That might not be the case by the time Northwestern actually faces those teams – perhaps Michigan, with its general inconsistency, or Michigan State, with its woeful offense, or Nebraska, with its improved-yet-subpar defense, will prove tougher matchups.

When analyzing games weeks in advance, the best we can do is appraise both teams based on how they would matchup in the present. And by that measure, Illinois and Iowa seem, to me at least, like the most winnable games.

Scouting the rest of Northwestern’s opponents is less important than whether the Wildcats can make the necessary adjustments to reverse their midseason decline. If Northwestern plays like it did Saturday against Minnesota, it might win one of its remaining games. Maybe two. That team – the one that looked disjointed and unthreatening on offense, and was missing playmakers Kain Colter and Venric Mark, along with defensive tackle Sean McEvilly – might not have what it takes to make a bowl game.

But if the Wildcats can regain the form they displayed for most of last season, and for long stretches of this season (and if they can get Mark, Colter and McEvilly back in the near future) – including three quarters against Ohio State – bowl eligibility is not, by any means, an impossibility.

Losing to Minnesota hurts. It virtually closes the door on Northwestern’s Big Ten championship hopes. It does not extinguish its chances of extending NU's program-record bowl streak to six seasons. The Wildcats can still make a bowl, but instead of debating the finer points of future matchups and lamenting how soundly you believe Northwestern will be beaten by better competition later in the year, understand the Wildcats can, and should, get better between now and the end of the season. There’s still hope.

- Chris Johnson

What is this: 2001 or 2011?

Whenever a team is largely overachieving or underachieving, the comparisons start — which team does this one most compare to. That's not exactly a fair way to evaluate teams, since the reasons for the struggles are usually going to be different. However, you can't help but compare the hype and the disappointment when things start to go south.

After Northwestern's loss to Minnesota, I saw comparisons to both the 2001 and 2011 seasons. The older crowd saw the similarities to 2001. That year, the Wildcats were fresh off a Big Ten Championship season, thanks to their offensive resurgence with the spread. The expectations were high, and NU started off the year well with three straight victories, including a 27-26 nailbiter against No. 23 Michigan State. However, after the 14th-ranked Wildcats suffered a deflating loss to unranked Ohio State in the next game and finished the season with just one more win.

2011 was a little different. There was less hype that year than in either 2001 or 2013, but the Wildcats were still supposed to have a good team and figured to finally be able to combine a high-powered offense with a good defense. However, the offense struggled to find a rhythm without Dan Persa early in the year and the defense never lived up to expectations — as frustrated as fans get with this defense sometimes, it's light years ahead of the 2011 defense. If not for a late-season upset at Nebraska, NU wouldn't have gone bowling.

So which is this? 2001 or 2011? Hype-wise, this season matches the 2001 season, but the current free fall is even more perplexing than that year. NU might have had a solid offense and some good players in 2001, but the 2013 roster is much deeper and has far better athletes, as a whole. That should make fans both hopeful and disappointed — disappointed that NU is struggling with this amount of talent, but hopeful for a turnaround. Remember, the Wildcats have some great talent returning in the next few years, along with another top recruiting class coming in. The future is bright — perhaps brighter than it's ever been — but at some point, the future needs to get here, or else NU fans are going to get even more restless.

- Kevin Trahan

Around the Big Ten

Pump the brakes on Michigan State’s apparent offensive resurgence

Two games was too small a sample size from which to draw conclusions about Michigan State’s offense. Oh, it was tempting: the Spartans put up 68 points combined in consecutive wins over Iowa and Indiana. Sophomore Connor Cook appeared to be the reliable quarterback Michigan State had been searching for all season (and preseason). Tailback Jeremy Langford was staking his claim as one of the Big Ten’s best rushers. Everything was coming together for Michigan State’s previously ugly offense.

Big Ten championship aspirations seemed viable.

And they still are, only Michigan State’s offense appears to have taken another big step backward. On Saturday, the Spartans managed just 14 points against Purdue, which has allowed more points per game than every Big Ten team save Indiana. Cook completed 13-of-25 passes for 107 yards; the Spartans’ two touchdowns came on a fumble return from linebacker Denicos Allen and a touchdown pass from receiver Tony Lippett.

Purdue is a team Michigan State’s offense, if the measurable strides observed over the past two games reflected verifiable progress, should have put up at least 30 points on. The Boilermakers yielded 42 to Cincinnati, 20 to Indiana State, 31 to Notre Dame, 41 to Wisconsin, 55 to Northern Illinois and 44 to Nebraska. The Spartans, meanwhile, struggled to move the ball and couldn’t even produce an offensive touchdown by conventional means.

There’s no question Michigan State remains one of the top contenders in the Legends Division; it is, as of this writing, 3-0, good for first place. But if the Spartans can’t find a solution for their recurring offensive malaise, they won’t get to the championship game. An elite defense – Michigan State ranks first in the country at 3.59 yards per play – can only carry one team so far. Michigan State needs its offense to hold up the other end of the bargain.

- Chris Johnson

Best team in the Legends?

A couple weeks ago, we debated whether Northwestern was the best team in the Legends Division, and Chris and I both awarded that honor to the Wildcats. After the Minnesota game, we were debating whether NU could become bowl eligible.

Fans have way too short of memories in college football and tend to base their season predictions on what happened the previous week or two. As we've seen from Northwestern's roller coaster season this year, that's not a great strategy. Just because a team is playing well in late October, that doesn't mean they'll be playing the same way at the end of November, and vice versa. When NU gets Venric Mark and Kain Colter back, it may very well look like the best team in the Legends again. Who knows?

But right now, it's pretty much impossible to tell which team is the best in the division. Let's run through the candidates:

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have an easy schedule, but the meat of it is still to come. It's one thing to beat up on Illinois and Purdue. It's quite another to put together a complete game against the rest of the Big Ten. Maybe Nebraska's defense is improved, but I'm not sold until they beat someone at least semi-respectable.

Michigan State: The offense looked great against Indiana, but every offense looks great against Indiana. Putting up seven points against Purdue? Ouch.

Michigan: What are the Wolverines good at? Sometimes offense? This team has talent, but it's a year or two away from being great.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes are young and talented, and they're certainly better than they were last year. However, they're still inconsistent and seem to lack the firepower to win the division.

Northwestern: Well, you know.

Minnesota: The Gophers aren't in the same league as the previous five teams (no, not even with the NU team they just beat). However, if they put together a complete game, they can give anyone a scare.

So any idea how to rank those six? I'm not even going to try to, because things will surely change again next week. However, anyone can beat anyone this season, so the race to Indianapolis should be a fun one to watch.

- Kevin Trahan

Power rankings

1. Ohio State – For the second straight game, Carlos Hyde ground down an opposing defense with a bruising second half rushing performance. Two weeks ago, it was Northwestern; Saturday, it was Iowa.

2. Wisconsin – The nation’s ninth-ranked running attack ran over another overmatched Big Ten opponent. After gashing Northwestern for 286 yards on the ground last week, on Saturday the Badgers rolled up 289 on Illinois’ defense.

3. Nebraska – It will be interesting to see whether Nebraska, who held Illinois and Purdue to 26 combined points in consecutive wins before an open week, can continue to improve defensively in coming games against Minnesota and Northwestern.

4. Michigan State – Scoring just 14 points against Purdue Saturday was a bad sign for Spartans fans hoping Michigan State’s offensive ills had been cured.

5. Michigan – One of the best games between Big Ten teams so far this season, Michigan-Indiana included a Big Ten record 369-yard receiving day from Wolverines receiver Jeremy Gallon and 503 passing yards from quarterback Devin Gardner.

6. Penn State – Two weeks after a wild four-overtime win over Michigan, Penn State travels to Ohio Stadium this Saturday to face the undefeated Buckeyes. Good luck.

7. Iowa – At halftime of Saturday’s 10-point loss at Ohio State, Iowa led the Buckeyes 17-10. Then Carlos Hyde did this and the Hawkeyes lost.

8. Minnesota – With coach Jerry Kill watching from a private box while on a medical leave of absence to deal with his epilepsy, the Gophers edged Northwestern after turning two critical turnovers – a pick six at the end of the third quarter, and a strip-sack at the beginning of the fourth that led to a 34-yard field goal -- into points.

9. Northwestern – Not having Venric Mark and Kain Colter limits Northwestern’s offense, but it’s no excuse for losing at home to Minnesota.

10. Indiana – Anytime Indiana plays, one is compelled to watch, if only to see what the explosive Hoosiers’ offense will do next. The other side of the ball is a completely different story: the Hoosiers surrendered 63 points in a loss to Michigan Saturday and rank last in the Big Ten in scoring defense.

11. Illinois – The last time Illinois (3-3, 0-2 Big Ten) won a game of any consequence was September 7, when it beat Cincinnati. Picking up the three more wins required for bowl eligibility will be a challenge.

12. Purdue – It’s entirely possible Purdue will finish the season with zero wins over FBS teams. Its only victory of the season came against FCS foe Indiana State on Sept. 7.