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Opponent Q&A: Previewing Minnesota with Mark Mowery of The Daily Gopher

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Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Every Thursday during football season, we'll be reaching out to opponent SB Nation sites or opponent beat writers to give readers another perspective on Saturday's upcoming game.

This week, No. 16 Northwestern is home to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers (11 a.m. CT, Big Ten Network). Mark Mowery of The Daily Gopher takes our questions.

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Inside NU: Minnesota got booed off the field against Kent State two weeks ago and people were calling for Mitch Leidner to be replaced as the offense struggled once again. But last week, Leidner had a career-high in passing yards and the Golden Gophers put up 27 points. What was different?

Mark Mowery: Yes, many people had to temporarily holster their #Mitchforks for the week once #2minuteMitch showed up again to bail out a suspect special teams performance and a banged up defense last week against Ohio by engineering a last minute touchdown drive. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending upon how you look at it), nothing was all that different about Mitch's performance. One of his biggest problems and reasons for a lot of people being upset with him is his maddening lack of consistency. One game, he'll look like a completely capable, even above average, Big Ten quarterback. Another game he'll be floating ducks around the field, missing wide open receivers in the flat by 5 yards, and fumbling the ball at inopportune times. He's utterly capable of showing improvement (his completion percentage is up to 58.7% from 51.5% a year ago) but a banged up offensive line, extremely youthful receiving core, and a lack of Maxx(xxxxx) Williams hasn't done him any favors. He'll never be an elite college QB but he could certainly be the type of player that fits a Jerry Kill system.

INU: After giving up just 17 points to a TCU offense that just put up 55 this past weekend, Minnesota has allowed 20 or more in two of their past three games (against Colorado State and Ohio). Is this a cause for concern?

MM: Based on the defense's S&P+ ranking of 11th in FBS, it would appear the point totals aren't a cause for concern. What's more concerning is the constantly increasing amount of injuries the defense is seeing at numerous positions. Key injuries involve 75% of the starters in the secondary including a knee injury to preseason All Big Ten corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun (questionable for Saturday), a leg injury to starting safety Damarius Travis (he won't play Saturday), and a concussion to starting safety Antonio Johnson (questionable for Saturday). Starting middle linebacker Cody Poock, who has been an important cog in the front seven the first four games of the season, has a rib injury that may hold him out Saturday.

Gopher fans understand that injuries are a part of college football, but goodness gracious Minnesota has had some pretty bad breaks the first third of the season as far as the injury bug is concerned. That is currently the biggest concern about the defense. Do the Gophers have enough depth to ride out the storm? Or will the attrition to the roster be too much? Saturday will be a good first answer to this question and all we can do is wait and see.

INU: David Cobb is now in the NFL, but Minnesota seems to have been able to replace him well, with Rodney Smith averaging over 90 yards per game and Shannon Brooks impressing last week. What are the strengths of each of these guys' games, and how should we expect to see the carries split up on Saturday?

MM: Most agree that David Cobb was a great college running back with an uncanny ability to make 1 or 2 yard plays into 4 or 5 yard gains. He could make something out of nothing with some crafty moves and a decent amount of strength. He broke the Minnesota single season record for rushing yards and we love him for that. But we also believe that the two youngsters on the roster (both Smith and Brooks are freshman, Smith a redshirt and Brooks a true freshman) will be able to fill the void quite capably.

The banged up offensive line (there are those danged injuries again) didn't open a lot of holes for these guys the first four games of the season. This past Saturday against Ohio, the unit appeared to begin to coalesce and it showed in the RB performance. Smith, curiously, reminds me a lot of Cobb in his ability to make something out of nothing and keep the legs churning for a few more feet on those short runs where the line didn't quite get the blocks they needed to. He appears, thus far at least, to have a little bit better break away speed than Cobb did. Brooks has a much smaller sample size to draw from (the 10 carries against Ohio were the first of his collegiate career) but he appears more likely to juke a defender and use speed to break off longer runs.

As far as a carry split, it's probably going to be pretty even unless during the game someone becomes the "hot hand." Kill isn't afraid to utilize this strategy so if one of the two happens to break off a long run or get in a rhythm, expect him to be the primary ball carrier the rest of the game going forward. A wildcard is the preseason presumed starter in senior Rodney Williams. He's more of a power back, and if the game becomes the slobber-knocker we think it might be, he may be called upon to get some of those tough yards.

INU: Minnesota has two legitimate weapons on the outside in KJ Maye, an explosive athlete, and Drew Wolitarsky, a big-bodied guy. Last week, Jordan Williams, a receiver built similarly to Wolitarsky, burned Northwestern. How do you expect the Gophers to get the ball into these guys' hands against a tough Northwestern defense?

MM: I think it would amuse most Gopher fans to see that you referred to Wolitarsky and Maye as "legitimate weapons." They are definitely Minnesota's best bets in the receiving core right now but unfortunately at this juncture in the offense's development, we'd be hesitant to refer to anyone as a "weapon." This isn't to say they aren't fully capable of putting together a quality effort but Wolitarsky is coming off a concussion (seriously, the injuries on this team...) and Maye has had a big problem with drops thus far this season. Minnesota will mostly likely try to hit Wolitarsky in the flat (if he is able to play) a few times and see if he can break a tackle or two on the outside. Maye is slightly more athletic and therefore more versatile in where he lines up. A lot of Leidner's deep ball efforts this year have been in the direction of Maye but we have yet to see that big time connection work out yet. He will also be brought in motion on occasion and don't be surprised if he is the beneficiary of a jet sweep or two.

INU: Who are some of the standouts on Minnesota's defense that will make a difference Saturday, and what are their strengths? Do you expect Jerry Kill to dial up the pressure against Clayton Thorson, who's making his first Big Ten start?

MM: I assume you mean the standouts that will actually be healthy enough to play, right? Sorry, I know the injury spiel is old but we're kind of in shock at the mere quantity of players on the mend... Standouts on defense include senior CB and preseason All-Big Ten selection Eric Murray, who most teams like to avoid throwing towards and therefore doesn't rack up eye-popping secondary statistics. Despite this, he does have an interception and two passes defended this year. Northwestern will probably want to avoid having a freshman like Thorson throw to Murray's side too often, especially
considering the other positions may be occupied by less experienced backups taking the place of injured starters.

The biggest threat in the front seven is mostly definitely sophomore DT Steven Richardson who attended Mount Carmel High School in Northwestern's back yard and was under-recruited due to only being 6 feet tall. He's been an absolute beast, racking up all the stats, including 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. Strangely enough, he'll be the key to generating any pressure on Thorson because the defensive ends have thus far disappointed when it comes to pressuring the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys isn't known to dial up an inordinate amount of blitzes, but he also isn't afraid to send extra defenders towards the quarterback when the situation calls for it because of the quality of Minnesota's secondary. However, with players' positions being shuffled around, he may be more conservative in sending pressure to allow the newer faces a safety valve or two. Should be an interesting thing to watch as the game progresses.

INU: What's your prediction for Saturday and why? How long will the game be at #M00N?

MM: Ah yes, the glorious return of #M00N. If I'm being honest, I think Minnesota would want the score to stay at #M00N as long as possible. The Gophers want to make this a sloppy contest and keep the Wildcats from getting out to any sort of fast start. I feel if Northwestern scores on an earlier possession, it would be extremely problematic for the Gopher's chances at winning this game.

Against quality competition, Leidner generally plays better when he isn't called upon to make up a deficit. After a strong performance against an underrated Ohio team, I'm not entirely worried about Minnesota's offense. My prediction for long term #M00N is mostly out of respect for the Wildcats' ferocious defense. I'll see your 10-9 prediction and "un-raise" you a few points. I'm going FULL #M00N. Northwestern squeaks out a close win in a kicking contest, 9-6.