With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
Northwestern dominated Minnesota at home in 2015, but expect more resistance when the Wildcats travel to Minneapolis for their penultimate regular season game.
Returning starters: 13 (7 offense, 6 defense)
2015 record: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten)
Coach: Tracy Claeys, 2nd year (2-4)*
*Claeys took over for Jerry Kill in the middle of the 2015 season
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2015 S&P+ Overall: 37th
2015 S&P+ Offense: 58th
2015 S&P+ Defense: 23th
2016 S&P+ Projection: 42nd (4 spots above Northwestern)
2015 was a strange year for the Gophers, headlined by the surprise retirement of their head coach seven weeks into the season. Minnesota was a decent 4-3 at that point, starting with a 3-1 non-conference slate that would’ve been perfect if not for a narrow season-opening loss against then-No. 2 TCU. The Gophers then sandwiched blowout defeats against Northwestern and Nebraska around a rout of Purdue to open Big Ten play. However, the schedule got a lot tougher after Kill’s retirement, and Claeys struggled to find victories in his interim role. Minnesota went 1-4 to finish the regular season, but the losses came against Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin, and by an average of just 8 points. The Gophers ended up at 5-7, but made a bowl anyways and closed out their season on an optimistic note with a 21-14 Quick Lane Bowl victory over Central Michigan.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner is one of those guys who seems like he’s been around forever. Well, the fifth-year senior is back for one last go, and surprisingly, has accrued a lot of hype this offseason. ESPN NFL Draft expert Todd McShay shockingly listed Leidner as a first-round pick in his early 2017 mock draft back in May. Analysts are comparing him to Carson Wentz, the North Dakota State QB who came out of nowhere and started rising on draft boards late in his career and eventually was selected second overall. Leidner is apparently healthy and finally ready to fulfill his lofty potential. We’ll see.
Leidner threw for just 14 touchdowns with 11 interceptions as a junior, and the Gophers finished next-to-last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (who could’ve possibly been last?). If Minnesota is to contend in the West division, Leidner’s numbers will need to improve. Unfortunately, he loses leading receiver KJ Maye this season. Leidner does have some weapons in WRs Drew Wolitarsky and Eric Carter and TE Brandon Lingen, but the Gophers would really benefit if a younger receiver stepped up as another target. The line is also bit of a question mark, as it graduated a lot of experience in 2015. If that unit can’t provide time for Leidner to survey the field, Minnesota may be in trouble.
The biggest strength for the Gophers’ offense is the backfield. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks will almost certainly be one of the conference’s best RB duos in 2016, and they’re just sophomores. As freshmen, the pair combined for 1,379 yards and 9 touchdowns. Brooks is the more explosive back, while Smith is an efficient runner between the tackles. If the passing game can catch up to the RBs’ level of production (a big “if”), Claeys could have a solid offense on his hands in 2016.
Minnesota ranked 23rd in defensive S&P+ in 2015, mostly on the strength of the nation’s 11th-best pass defense in terms of yards allowed. The Gophers’ secondary was outstanding, but loses starting cornerbacks Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray, as well as the team’s leading tackler, safety Antonio Johnson. Still, it’s a deep unit that shouldn’t take too much of a step back. Jalen Myrick is a stud at CB and Damarius Travis is back at safety after missing 2015 due to injury. The man who coached the secondary in 2015, Jay Sawvel, has been promoted to Claeys’ old job of defensive coordinator, so the passing defense will remain a major focus.
The Gophers need to get better against the run in 2016, and they should have the personnel to make an improvement. Minnesota returns a ton of depth on the defensive line, a position group that struggled to stay healthy last season. If DTs like Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe can stay on the field, it would make life easier for talented linebackers Cody Poock and Jack Lynn. Defense has generally been Minnesota’s stronger unit in recent years, and 2016 should be no different.
Three Players to Know
RB Shannon Brooks - Leidner is the most well-known player on the Gopher offense, but Brooks might be the most underrated. The explosive back averaged a whopping 6.0 yards per carry as a true freshman, and four of his seven touchdowns covered 35 yards or more, including a pair of 70-yarders. Brooks, who can also catch the ball out of the backfield, is a gamebreaking talent with the ball in his hands.
LB Cody Poock - One of the anchors of Minnesota’s defense, Poock finished second on the team with 99 tackles in 2015. The junior excels at stuffing opposing running backs, whether it’s at the line (he had 5.5 tackles for loss last season) or once they’ve broken through the first line of defense.
CB Jalen Myrick - Both of Minnesota’s starting CBs in 2015 are currently on NFL rosters, but in Myrick, the Gophers have an experienced, extremely speedy veteran ready to step into a starting role. Myrick picked off three passes in just ten games last season and took one to the house. His speed also comes in handy on special teams, which Northwestern fans may remember from his 100-yard kickoff return TD when the Wildcats last visited TCF Bank Stadium in 2014.
Behind Enemy Lines
Chris (aka GoAUpher) from SB Nation’s Minnesota Blog, The Daily Gopher, takes our questions:
Best case scenario for Minnesota football in 2016?
Best case is the Gophers pull a 2015 Iowa. I don't mean a 12-0 regular season. What I mean is that they capitalize on a soft schedule and improve enough to put together a season that significantly exceeds the preseason expectations of anyone who isn't a homer. IMO that would be 10-2 or 11-1. In this best case I would also expect that the record would seem out of place given Minnesota's advanced stats rankings (much like Iowa in 2015). I also wouldn't care one bit.
5-7. Minnesota should not be losing to any of the non-conference opponents, Purdue, or Rutgers. All are at home and Minnesota is better than all of them. I'd like to add Illinois in and say 6-6 but Minnesota likes to cough up a road game they shouldn't and Illinois feels like the right place for them to drop an annoying face plant if they're having a tough season.
Prediction for Northwestern at Minnesota?
I honestly don't know. NU fans shouldn't expect a repeat of last season (that was without question Minnesota's worst game of the year). Count me among those who think the Wildcats over-performed into their 10-2 record. That said, if Minnesota did what NU did last year you better believe the optimist in me would be looking forward to further improvement in 2016, so don't assume I'm automatically predicting a step back or overlooking Northwestern. I'd expect it to be a closer game and since I'm a Minnesota optimist, I'll predict a Gopher win. I also need this game to be a win for my prediction for Minnesota's record to come true.
What's your season prediction for the Gophers?
8-4 is a reasonable expectation IMO. 7-5 is the safest pick but the optimist in me doesn't like it because of the soft schedule. I can convince myself to say 9-3 but know it requires a larger number of assumptions. So I'll split the difference with 8-4. I'll call wins for all 3 non cons, Purdue, Rutgers, either at Maryland or at Illinois, Northwestern and one of three from Iowa/@Nebraska/@Wisconsin.
Minnesota looked really bad in its 27-0 loss at Ryan Field last October, but like Chris said, that was easily the Gophers’ worst performance of the season. With a much easier schedule in 2016, Claeys should be able to get 7 or 8 wins out of his squad. However, much of that comes down to the play of Leidner. The defense should be fine, but Minnesota’s offense could be anywhere from pretty good to very bad, which depends mostly on Leidner’s ability to limit turnovers and be efficient with his arm and legs. Northwestern held him to 10/21 passing for 72 yards and 1 interception in last year’s contest, but expect Leidner to be more comfortable on his home field. The two running games may be crucial in this one. If Anthony Walker and co. can bottle up Smith and Brooks like they did last season, Leidner will have a much harder time getting going. On the other side, Justin Jackson will look to follow up his success in last year’s game. Expect this to be a tightly-contested, relatively low-scoring affair between two teams with aspirations to win the West.
Date: Nov. 19