This week as Northwestern prepares to take on Minnesota, we wrap up our preview content by asking Blake Ruane of Minnesota’s SB Nation site The Daily Gopher for some insight.
Inside NU: Future first-round pick Mitch Leidner has seemingly regressed from last year throwing the ball, struggling with inaccuracy and ball security issues. What's been the source of his struggles, is it entirely his fault, and what should Northwestern key on when he drops back to pass?
Blake Ruane: It's been a perfect storm for Mitch Leidner this season. The Gophers brought in a new offensive coordinator in the offseason, and the passing game — which picked up steam towards the end of last season — has regressed under his watch. The wide receiver corps has been listless outside of Drew Wolitarsky and without tight end Brandon Lingen. An offensive line thin on depth has been banged up. And Mitch had one of the worst games of his career against Iowa, even suffering a concussion late in the game. He hasn't been the same since. The Gophers have thrown for just two passing touchdowns in their last eight games. That's not good, especially with a senior three-year starter under center.
Obviously there is plenty of blame to go around. As for Saturday, if the Wildcats are at least competent pressuring the quarterback and defending the pass, the Gophers will be in trouble. Minnesota will run the ball to set up the play-action pass, including a couple deep shots on first down. But it'll be for naught if Leidner doesn't have time to throw or if the receivers can't find separation.
INU: Luckily for Gopher fans, Leidner shares a backfield with Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. What are the strengths/playing styles of each, and how do you envision them being used Saturday?
BR: Rodney Smith is one of the underrated running backs in the Big Ten, in my opinion. The redshirt sophomore has rushed for 1,007 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, trailing only Saquon Barkley and Justin Jackson in the Big Ten in rushing yards. Patient and elusive, Smith has added an element of toughness to his game this season that has allowed him to become the workhorse of this offense. Brooks missed the first two games of the season with a broken foot, allowing Smith to seize control of the running back position. He has been solid this season, but not nearly the home run threat that he was last season. Together, the two represent a formidable tandem at running back.
Smith will get the bulk of the carries on Saturday, as he has all season long, but don't expect Brooks to ride the bench.
INU: Pat Fitzgerald has praised the Minnesota defense, especially the front seven. What makes that group so good, and who are some names to watch for?
BR: The Gophers have, for the most part, been stout up front against the run due in large part to junior defensive tackle Steven Richardson and a deep linebacker corps. Richardson is a wrecking ball up the middle, leading all Minnesota defensive linemen in total tackles with 27, including nine tackles for loss and five sacks. Seniors Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis lead a talented group of Gopher linebackers, but junior Jonathan Celestin has arguably been the standout on defense and leads the team with 69 total tackles on the year. Junior linebacker Cody Poock is out for the season, so Minnesota will lean on Lynn, Rallis, and Celestin to put the brakes on Justin Jackson and the Wildcats' running game.
The biggest issue with the front seven this season has been generating a pass rush without dialing up a blitz. When the Gophers rush four, opposing offenses have to account for Richardson, but his teammates on the defensive line haven't been able to take advantage.
INU: What should worry Northwestern fans most about this matchup?
BR: In five losses this season, Northwestern running back Justin Jackson has rushed for an average of 72.6 yards, and was held out of the end zone in all but one of those contests. In five wins, Jackson is averaging 134.8 rushing yards per game, with five touchdowns during that span. I realize the Gophers will also have to deal with the connection between quarterback Clayton Thorson and wide receiver Austin Carr, but shutting down Jackson would appear to be one of the keys to defeating the Wildcats. Fortunately, Minnesota has had success controlling the ground game on defense, even against the best of the Big Ten. Look no further than the Gophers' matchup with Saquon Barkley, the Big Ten's leading rusher. Against Penn State, the Minnesota defense held Barkley to 38 rushing yards in regulation. If the Gophers can avoid the uncharacteristically sloppy tackling that doomed them against Nebraska, they should be able to contain Jackson.
INU: What worries you as a Gopher fan most about this matchup?
BR: The Gophers' offensive line versus the Wildcats' defensive front. This is a banged up unit with zero depth. Left guard Jared Weyler is out with a torn pectoral. JUCO transfers Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright, both starters at one point this season, are now splitting snaps at right guard because neither of them is 100 percent. Smith and Brooks have both been able to make plays this season with defenders in the backfield, but that was going to come back to bite them at some point. Last Saturday was that point. Minnesota struggled to run the football against Nebraska after halftime and were shut out in the second half as a result.
The Northwestern rushing defense has produced similar numbers to Nebraska (both are allowing about 140 rushing yards per game), and the Wildcats even rank ahead of the Huskers in rushing defense according to S&P+ (36th, compared to 49th). If the Gophers can't open running lanes for Smith or Brooks on Saturday, their chances of beating Northwestern are slim.
INU: Prediction time: Who leaves TCF Bank Stadium with the win and why?
BR: To be honest, I don't feel too confident, even at home. The Gophers had a chance to make a statement against Nebraska but fell flat on their face after leading at halftime, and that loss has taken the wind out of this season's sails a bit. Minnesota has yet to beat a team with a pulse, with arguably their best win coming on the road against Maryland. And this Northwestern team is much different from the one that lost 9-7 to Illinois State. The difference between these two evenly matched teams, in my opinion, is the Wildcats' passing game. Northwestern has had much more success through the air than the Gophers. With two strong defenses, I think this game will come down to the more dynamic offense, and that belongs to the Wildcats in this matchup. Northwestern 24, Minnesota 20.