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Northwestern-Minnesota preview: Three key matchups

It once again starts up front. But there are big matchups on the outside, too.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Football is an 11-on-11 game, but when it comes down to it, you have to win at the individual level to win at the team level. Here are three individual matchups that will be key in Saturday’s game between Big Ten West rivals Northwestern and Minnesota.

Montre Hartage vs. Drew Wolitarsky

Wolitarsky leads Minnesota in every significant receiving category by an almost embarrassing margin. His 53 catches are 35 ahead of his next-closest competitor (running back Rodney Smith). His 669 yards are 390 yards ahead of Brian Smith, whose 279 are second most. Wolitarsky has even reeled in three of Mitch Leidner’s five touchdowns. The senior, at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, mainly uses his big frame to win on short and intermediate routes, but his size also helps him win jump balls down the field. Hartage faced a similarly sized wide receiver last week in DeAngelo Yancey and excelled. The Golden Gophers seem to almost force feed Wolitarsky as the only real threat on the outside, so Hartage should be ready to see a lot of balls come his way.

Anthony Walker Jr. vs. Rodney Smith

It’s easy to break this down into Northwestern’s front seven versus Minnesota’s running game, but this appears to be a game that should set up toward Walker’s strengths. He would have to drop into coverage too much and should get a lot of opportunities to come downhill against a pretty one-dimensional offense (the Golden Gophers have run it 439 times and passed it just 257).

Last year against Minnesota, Walker had a scoop and score as part of a 27-0 thrashing. This year, expect him to be active hunting down Smith and backfield mate Shannon Brooks. If Northwestern’s defensive line can hold up in the trenches, he should have lots of opportunities.

Northwestern offensive line vs. Minnesota’s front seven

This is the area Fitzgerald has praised most when it comes to the Golden Gophers. Minnesota is 22nd in rush defense S&P+, but last year the Wildcats were able to grind out 184 yards on the ground, including 120 yards on just 20 carries for Justin Jackson. Of course this year’s Wildcat passing attack is much more potent, but establishing balance will be key. If the Wildcats can hold their own in trenches, that’ll also give Clayton Thorson time to work the ball downfield. Last week against Nebraska, Minnesota gave up two 30-plus yard touchdown passes. The Golden Gophers are 91st in the nation having given up 18 plays of at least 30 yards. Northwestern is upper-middle of the pack with 17 such plays (48th in the nation).