Fresh off of a dominant performance in a 45-17 win over Purdue in West Lafayette, Northwestern will go back on the road yet again this weekend, as the Wildcats will travel to Minneapolis looking for that necessary sixth win to secure bowl eligibility. Both teams are 4-3 in conference play, but despite Minnesota having the better overall record (7-3 to NU’s 5-5) and playing at home, Northwestern is a one-point favorite in this Saturday’s contest.
That line isn’t actually surprising to me. I’m not expecting anything like Northwestern’s 27-0 bludgeoning of the Gophers last season, but there is good reason to believe the Wildcats will win this game. Their offense has been rolling for most of conference play and the defense has put up a few encouraging recent performances as well. Pat Fitzgerald’s squad has won 4 of 6, with the two losses being close games against top-10 teams. Which brings me to the first of my three things to know about Minnesota...
1. The Gophers’ 7-3 record is deceptive because they haven’t beaten any good teams
It’s been a fairly straightforward year for Minnesota. The Gophers, playing a remarkably easy schedule, have beaten all of the teams they should’ve beaten and lost all three times they’ve played a legitimately dangerous opponent. Let’s take a look at the seven wins:
- In Week One, Minnesota eked out a home win over Oregon State, who is 2-8.
- In Week Two, Minnesota took care of business against a bad FCS team (Indiana State, who is 4-7).
- Following the bye week, Minnesota narrowly defeated Colorado State, a 5-5 team from the Mountain West.
- After starting its Big Ten slate at 0-2, Minnesota rattled off four straight wins against the pride of the conference: Maryland, Rutgers (by two points!!!), Illinois and Purdue. Yep, the Gophers’ four Big Ten wins are against teams with a combined 5-23 record in conference play.
Minnesota has played three teams with winning records: Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska. It has lost three times. Now, this isn’t to say the Gophers are a bad football team. They played all three of those teams very close, most notably a 29-26 loss to now-No. 9 (AP) Penn State. My point, rather, is that Minnesota isn’t nearly as good as its record might indicate. This isn’t a team that was ever going to compete for the Big Ten West title. It’s a team that has some talent and is capable of beating Northwestern, but the Wildcats have simply looked like the better football team this season and thus deserve to be favored, perhaps by more than a single point.
2. Minnesota’s defense is solid, especially against the run
The Gophers, in a lot of ways, fit the stereotype of a typical Big Ten team. They’re good in the trenches, run the ball well (more on that in a sec) and are better on defense than offense. Minnesota is 35th in the nation in defensive S&P+, but just 81st offensively, which makes sense given that head coach Tracy Claeys was a defensive coach for the first 20 years of his career. The Gophers’ biggest strength on that side of the ball is against the run. They’ve allowed just one 100-yard rusher in 10 games (107 to Iowa’s Akrum Wadley, 54 of which came on one run) and held the Big Ten’s leading rusher, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, to 63 yards on 20 carries. Justin Jackson and John Moten IV ripped off 6.5 yards per carry against Purdue but they’ll encounter some tougher sledding this week. Going against Minnesota’s physical front four, not to mention linebackers Jonathan Celestin and Jack Lynn, will be a big challenge for Northwestern’s offensive line.
3. There are pieces on offense, but Mitch Leidner is bad
Minnesota has three very talented weapons on offense: RBs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and WR Drew Wolitarsky. Smith is the most dangerous of the three. He’s carried the ball 194 times for 1,007 yards this season (5.2 YPC), leads the Big Ten with 14 rushing touchdowns and can also catch the ball out of the backfield. Brooks is a Moten-esque change of pace back, although far more established; he averages around 10 carries per game and complements Smith well in a change-of-pace role. Finally, Wolitarsky is the clear go-to receiver with 53 catches on the season (Smith is second with 18). He’s an excellent route-runner with sure hands, making him an effective possession receiver but not a deep threat. Unfortunately for Minnesota fans, Wolitarsky and an awesome running game aren’t enough to make up for the inescapable deficiencies of quarterback Mitch Leidner. The fifth-year senior entered the season with surprising hype (first round pick???) but has pretty much been the same player he’s been throughout his career. He has thrown for five touchdowns to seven interceptions and just isn’t that accurate as a passer. He can, however, make plays with his legs. This is a run-dominated offense, so if Northwestern can slow down Smith and Brooks and force some third and longs, it should be able to limit the Gophers’ success. That’s a big if against running backs this talented, though.