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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Minnesota

The Wildcats can become bowl eligible with a victory

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

Every week 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.

The Wildcats (5-5) are on the road again this week, traveling to Minneapolis to square off with Minnesota (7-3). The Wildcats have the opportunity to clinch a bowl game for the second-straight season and keep the team’s chances for finishing the regular season with a winning record alive. The Golden Gophers have beaten some of the lower teams in the conference, but lost to Iowa, Penn State and Nebraska so far this season. On paper, the teams appear relatively even, making this week that much more important. Here are the reasons Northwestern will or won’t win Saturday:

Why Northwestern will beat Minnesota

1. Northwestern’s offensive maintains the balance it had last week

After Northwestern lost to Wisconsin, it was clear that Justin Jackson had to be more involved in the offense. And that’s exactly what happened against Purdue. Jackson carried the ball 22 times for 127 yards and two scores, and John Moten IV entered the fold with 16 carries for 119 yards. The balance on offense allowed Clayton Thorson to operate with more manageable third-downs, which then allowed the sophomore quarterback to throw for a career-high 352 yards. Being able to stay out of obvious passing downs and keep the defense guessing is paramount for the success of the Northwestern offense. Mick McCall will keep the play-calling balanced this week, and the offense will control the game as a result.

2. Northwestern will continue to force turnovers

The Wildcats failed to force a turnover against Ohio State or Wisconsin, but exploded take the ball away four times a week ago. The trend will continue this week against Gopher quarterback Mitch Leidner. Leidner has attempted under 22 passes per game in the last four starts, but he has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns this season (seven interceptions to five TDs). Montre Hartage looked like a shutdown cornerback against Purdue and could be another key this week. The Gophers like to run the ball a lot though, so the turnovers may have to come from fumbles rather than interceptions. If the Wildcats can force Minnesota to throw the ball, they’ll be in good shape: The Wildcat defense is 10th in the country in S&P+ on passing downs, but just 55th overall.

3. The Wildcats will get off to fast start

Northwestern has had trouble getting off to good starts so far this season; the Wildcats trailed by double-digits to the Michigan State, Ohio State Wisconsin and Purdue before scoring any points. Against a stout Minnesota defense (22nd in rushing S&P+ and 35th overall), Northwestern can’t get behind again early. Making a concerted effort the get the ball into the hands of his playmakers, Clayton Thorson will lead multiple early scoring drives, putting pressure on an oft-shaky Minnesota passing attack to keep up.

Why Minnesota will beat Northwestern

1. Minnesota will control the lines of scrimmage

The Minnesota offense ranks 118th in rushing S&P+, but sophomore running back Rodney Smith has rushed for over 1,000 yards on over five yards per attempt this season. And as mentioned above, the Minnesota defense doesn’t give up a whole lot on the ground. Defensively, Northwestern has been prone to missing tackles, which could allow Smith to have a field day. Minnesota will want to run the ball and control clock, so if the defense isn’t prepared to tackle Smith, it will be a long day for Mike Hankwitz’s defense. On the other side of the ball, Northwestern’s offensive line has struggled in many games this season, sometimes forcing McCall to completely abandon the running game. Minnesota has a strong defensive line, so the flaws the line has been prone to will return this week, making it difficult for the offense to get into any sort of rhythm.

2. Northwestern’s secondary will get exposed

Last week was probably the best performance out of the Northwestern secondary all season, but that by no means signals that the group is fixed. For one thing, Purdue was one-dimensional from basically the beginning of the game, so the defensive backs knew what to expect. This week, Minnesota will be much more deceptive with its looks and play calling. Leidner struggles with his accuracy at times, but he has a big arm, which will prove troublesome for Trae Williams, Marcus McShepard and Hartage on the back end. The Purdue game likely didn’t solve the problems the secondary had earlier in the season, and this week—against what is not considered an explosive offense—could be a trap game of sorts for the group.

3. The Gophers will shut down Austin Carr

This can’t really happen, can it? It’s not likely Minnesota can completely neutralize Carr, but if it can, then Northwestern is in major trouble. Other receivers have had some success, but nothing close to that of Carr. It seems like Carr has to have an off day at some point, but it just hasn’t happened. On third downs, in the red zone and on key plays, Carr is usually the guy; Clayton Thorson is looking for him when the offense needs a completion. In the cold, the Gophers will blanket Carr and force other receivers to be them, and the Northwestern offense will struggle as a result.