Why Northwestern will/won't beat Minnesota
The Wildcats open up their Big Ten slate at home against the Golden Gophers, as Northwestern tries to get revenge for last year's defeat.
Gameday is just a few days away. So with Saturday looming, it's time to start digging a little deeper into the intricacies of the contest. Football, at its core, is a game of individual matchups that all work together to form one play. All individual showdowns are crucial. But there are still some that are more important and influential than others. Let's look at the three matchups that may decide Northwestern's game against Minnesota:
1. Northwestern's offensive line vs. Minnesota's front seven
In this game, it all starts up front, where a banged-up Wildcats group faces an underperforming Golden Gophers unit. This matchup should go a long way toward determining who wins the game.
For Northwestern, the main concern is injuries. If Geoff Mogus is unable to go, either Tommy Doles or Blake Hance will be in his place, according to the depth chart. Left guard Connor Mahoney got banged up against Ball State too, but he should be able to go. But the hosts aren't the only team dealing with injuries in this matchup. Starting middle linebacker Cody Poock may not go Saturday for the Gophers, as he's dealing with a rib injury.
When it comes down to individual matchups, Ian Park, Mahoney and Shane Mertz will have their hands full with Steven Richardson, a sophomore defensive tackle who already has 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a fumble forced and a fumble recovered. He's the team's best pass rusher — the defensive ends have disappointed thus far — and he's solid against the run too.
Additionally, Northwestern will have to be able to run the ball against the Golden Gophers, who will likely load the box and force Clayton Thorson to beat them through the air, something that he is yet to show the ability to do. If Northwestern runs the ball well early, it'll be huge for their chances to remain undefeated.
Advantage: Northwestern offensive line
2. Drew Wolitarsky vs. Nick VanHoose/Matthew Harris
After 6-foot-3, 228-pound Jordan Williams went off against VanHoose last week to the tune of eight catches, 133 yards and two touchdowns, the task doesn't get any easier for the Northwestern secondary from a physical stature standpoint. Wolitarsky goes 6-foot-3, 218 pounds and leads the Golden Gophers in receiving yards this year. He's currently dealing with a concussion, but if he's good to go, he could present a challenge similar to what Williams did. He's not the same player Williams is, but he's the same type of player.
It will be interesting to see who gets the assignment against Wolitasrky, and who gets the unenviable task of defending KJ Maye, an explosive senior who is smaller but can be used in a variety of ways. Neither VanHoose nor Harris is taller than 6-foot. Regardless, Northwestern needs to do a better job defending Minnesota's big-bodied wideout than it did Ball State's.
Advantage: VanHoose and Harris
3. Clayton Thorson against a banged-up Minnesota secondary
When we say banged-up, we mean banged-up. Take this from our Q&A with the Daily Gopher, which will be released Thursday afternoon:
Inside The Play: Clayton Thorson’s "Arm Punt"
Clayton Thorson once again had a shaky first half on Saturday, highlighted by a miscommunication with Miles Shuler that led to an interception. What did (or didn't) Thorson see that caused him to make this mistake?
Key injuries involve 75 percent 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).
Thorson put together perhaps his best stretch of the year in the third quarter of last week's clash with Ball State, but before that, he was pretty bad in the first half and all over the place the week before against Duke. While his legs have speed, they have been limited outside of the lone touchdown versus Stanford and a first-down run here or there. Take this from our Nate Williams, a former Northwestern linebacker:
He also has not shown the consistency to be given much respect in the passing game, which, plain and simple, makes him a liability on offense. Northwestern needs defenses to respect either his arm or legs, because without either one, Justin Jackson and company will not be as effective as they need to be.
Northwestern needs an effective Justin Jackson in this game, so they need an effective Clayton Thorson. It's simple. If Jackson is successful early, Minnesota will load the box and force Thorson to beat them. The question is, against S&P+'s 11th-best defense, can he?
Advantage: Minnesota secondary