Every Thursday -- or Wednesday -- during football season, we'll be presenting reasons why Northwestern will or won't come away from its Saturday game victorious. It's not so much an argument for or against either result as it is envisioning the scenarios in which the Wildcats come away from the game with a win or a loss.
This week, Minnesota comes to Ryan Field. The Golden Gophers are 3-1, having snuck by MAC foe Ohio by a score of 27-24 in Week 4. The meeting is the first Big Ten game of the season for both teams so whichever team wins will be in a good spot in the conference's West division. Minnesota and its junior quarterback Mitch Leidner aren't the flashiest team--and haven't beaten an opponent by more than six points this season--but it could be a tough game for the Wildcats.
Here are the reasons NU will or won't win on Saturday.
Why Northwestern will lose to Minnesota...
1. Clayton Thorson continues to make bad decisions
If you told any Northwestern football fan back in early August that the Wildcats would be 4-0 heading into Big Ten play this season, they would have laughed in your face. Even with the surprising and impressive undefeated start, the team hasn't played flawless football. That starts with quarterback Clayton Thorson, who has led his team to four consecutive wins but has made some questionable decisions in the last two games which have led to turnovers.
He threw two interceptions against Duke and one in the Ball State game, but also lost two fumbles this past Saturday. Of those five turnovers, three led to points for the opposing team (two touchdowns and a field goal). When Northwestern faces tougher conference opponents, allowing all those points off turnovers--in what will probably be close games--could be the difference between a win and a loss. Thorson needs to take care of the ball better this weekend.
2. The injuries to key Wildcats are worse than previously thought
Although Northwestern ended up with a win Saturday night, it was a W with an asterisk next to it, as multiple key players got hurt during the game. Safety Kyle Queiro broke his arm and will be out for a while, fellow safety Godwin Igwebuike may have a concussion, left tackle Geoff Mogus had to be carted off the field and superback Garrett Dickerson went down with a leg injury.
Obviously, Pat Fitzgerald has played the injury questions down so far in his media appearances this week so outside of Queiro, we don't know the status of the other sidelined Wildcats. But, if guys like Igwebuike, Mogus and Dickerson all aren't able to play against Minnesota, then NU will essentially be without four major contributors at very key positions on both offense and defense. Even this upstart team with talent at a lot of positions won't be able to withstand that kind of roster depletion.
3. Northwestern's defensive line isn't able to get pressure on Mitch Leidner
Northwestern hasn't sacked an opposing quarterback since the Eastern Illinois game, which has led to problems for the secondary since Thomas Sirk (Duke) and Riley Neal (Ball State) have had so much time to throw the ball. It also has hurt the run defense since Sirk and Neal--who, like Minnesota's Leidner, are threats to run--have been free to tuck it and run since there haven't been many defenders close to sacking them.
Sirk and Neal combined for 135 rushing yards against the NU defense which is certainly more than Pat Fitzgerald would like his top-ranked defensive unit to allow. If the lack of pressure continues into this Saturday's game, then Leidner will be able to easily go through his progressions against what could be an undermanned secondary and if no one's open, he could pick up yardage on the ground. Regardless of how good the rest of the defense is, not getting any penetration through the opposing offensive line is a death knell in Big Ten play.
Why Northwestern will beat Minnesota...
1. The Golden Gophers are missing their own fair share of important players
Whenever a team's injury list is "a mile long," according to its own head coach, then you know things may not be looking up. Northwestern's injury situation is bad, but Minnesota's is much worse. Three-fourths of the Gophers' starting secondary may not play on Saturday while top wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky is dealing with a concussion, linebacker Cody Poock has a hurt rib and left tackle Jonah Pirsig has a shoulder issue. Also, backup cornerback KiAnte Hardin may not play due to an ankle injury.
Suffice to say Minnesota's defense will be extremely limited this weekend, much like Northwestern's might be, and the Gophers' offense will be missing crucial players as well. That should open the secondary up a bit for Thorson.
2. Justin Jackson will return to form
The Wildcats' top running back had a nice game against Ball State, rushing for a career-high 184 yards on 33 carries (a 5.6-yard average) with a 62-yard scamper, which was nice to see after he posted less than 3.5 yards per carry against Duke and Eastern Illinois. Overall, the numbers have been great for the sophomore in the 2015 season but they dipped after the opener against Stanford.
Coming off his good showing, plus the depleted nature of the Minnesota defense, Jackson should be able to go nuts this weekend, even with left tackle Geoff Mogus probably out with injury. The Gophers have allowed over 150 rushing yards in three of their four games this year, so even their defense, when fully healthy, isn't very good at stopping the run anyway.
More on Minnesota
More on Minnesota
3. Minnesota might not be that good
After hanging with then-No. 2 TCU for all four quarters in the season opener, Minnesota became a team analysts liked to pick for a breakout season. While that game has been the Gophers' only loss so far, the three wins--all against non-power conference schools--have been by a total of nine points, with each being less impressive than the one before it. Even this past weekend, they needed a questionable call to push them by the Ohio University Bobcats.
Sure, a win's a win, but when a Big Ten team is squeaking by the likes of Ohio, Kent State and Colorado State every game, maybe that team just isn't very good. This could be the case with this Minnesota team.