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Northwestern vs. Minnesota preview: Four things to know about the Gophers

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Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream!

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Four things to know? What is this madness? Northwestern hasn’t lost in a long time, and the Wildcats are looking for a sixth consecutive win to take them to 8-3. Standing in their way will be 5-5 Minnesota, a team that beat Northwestern last year with a different coach and a different quarterback. Then they hired a coach who also beat Northwestern last season.

If you haven’t heard much about Minnesota this season, we have you covered.

1. Until last week, the offense was a tire fire.

P.J. Fleck would love if Minnesota was an offensive powerhouse. Western Michigan was routinely capable of hanging 30-40 points on MAC teams. Instead, Minnesota is 104th in offensive S&P+ and 100th in yards per play (to be fair, they are tied with Northwestern in yards per play; it’s not a great stat). Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft have combined for 9 passing touchdowns and 8 interceptions on the season. Minnesota really has only one productive receiver, sophomore Tyler Johnson.

Therefore, after three games of complete offensive futility, Minnesota appears to have abandoned the pass. Last week, against a porous Nebraska front seven, Minnesota ran the ball 44 times. This strategy paid massive dividends. The Gophers rushed for 409 yards and 6 touchdowns, essentially ending Mike Riley’s chances of leaving his post with dignity. Interestingly, quarterback Demry Croft pulled his best Khalil Tate impression and had 183 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns on 10 carries, which is hilarious. Croft’s previous 36 carries had gone for 25 yards. He had 31 more rushing yards in this game than he had in his entire season to this point.

Northwestern’s run defense probably won’t give up midway through the game. The Northwestern front seven is a lot better than Nebraska’s, but expect Minnesota to keep feeding Kobe McCrary and Rodney Smith on Saturday. We’ll see if Croft can keep up his rushing efficiency on zone reads and scrambles. After getting run all over by Duke’s Daniel Jones, the Wildcats’ defense has limited dual-threat QBs Trace McSorley and Brian Lewerke’s production on the ground.

2. Minnesota’s linebackers are very good.

Minnesota ranks 27th in scoring defense and 31st in S&P+. The Gophers still have much of the talent that crunched Northwestern into the turf last season. In particular, the linebacking duo of Jonathan Celestin and Thomas Barber is dominating opposing defenses. Celestin has 68 tackles (47 unassisted) and 4.5 tackles for loss. He’s no Paddy Fisher, but he also has Thomas Barber alongside him. Barber probably could give Fisher a run for his money, as the sophomore has racked up 93 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Minnesota totally bottled up Nebraska’s running game, and aside from a glaringly bad blip against Michigan, the run defense has been solid in the past four games.

The secondary is a bit weaker (seems like a Big Ten-wide problem, actually), but still decent enough to make Northwestern work for it.

3. Minnesota’s special teams are...ok.

Minnesota started the game against Nebraska with a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown courtesy of Rodney Smith. This was Smith’s second kickoff return touchdown of his career, and Northwestern will need to watch out for him. Minnesota hasn’t done much in punt returning. Kicker Emmit Carpenter is 14-of-18 on field goals for the year, which is fine. Punter Ryan Santoso is 6-foot-6 and having a decent senior year (44.4 average yards per punt, 12 punts inside the 20). That covers all three phases! Now for armchair psychology!

4. Row the boat (The Fleck Factor).

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Oh boy, another Tristan Jung digression.)

Sometimes, the head coach is the star attraction on a college football team. It’s unavoidable, and for Minnesota, it’s the reality. Everybody wants to talk about P.J. Fleck. I don’t think most people can name a defensive player on Minnesota, but every college football fan knows what “row the boat” means. There’s also the TV show, and the constant energy in press conferences.

I saw P.J. Fleck at Big Ten Football Media Days. Before the event, he had run three miles along Lake Shore Drive with a TV crew. As an avid runner myself, I was impressed at this commitment. Fleck was definitely the must-see attraction of Big Ten Media Days. I wanted to see if all the legends I heard were true. Was he really a genius, or was he just a very lucky cheerleader?

It’s a bit of both. Fleck comes from the “high school cross-country running” school of motivation, which is really weird in a football context. Football coaches are notoriously gruff. Nick Saban, the prototypical football coach, is a stick in the mud. Big Ten coaches almost always fit this mold. Pat Fitzgerald has a sense of humor, but definitely still exudes stoicism. Jeff Brohm and Tom Allen, the other new hires are cut from the same cloth.

I mean, could you imagine Pat Fitzgerald tweeting this?

No, I legitimately cannot. I cannot imagine Pat Fitzgerald tweeting “ELITE” and also being extremely excited about Jason Aldean.

It all goes back to that cross-country coach mentality. In my experience, many high school and college cross-country coaches (well, the good ones, anyway) are almost eternally upbeat and quirky. When your job is to force some poor sod to run long distances through bad weather, you need to be upbeat, quirky and energetic at least 90 percent of the time. P.J. Fleck is certainly all of those things. We know he has energy. As for quirkiness, the examples are endless. He awards the “Nekton of the Week” to his players. A “nekton” is an “aquatic animal that is able to swim and move independently of water currents.”

No, I have no idea what #HYPRR means. This is the type of whacko motivation I see all the time with male cross-country coaches (usually in high school).

You can see it in the demeanor. This is a P.J. Fleck press conference. Just look at the emotion and the passion. Look at all those hand gestures!

This is a Nick Saban press conference. It’s about as boring as it gets.

This is Stanford men’s cross-country coach Chris Miltenberg.

Now, tell me, with this limited sample, who reminds you more of Fleck, Saban or Miltenberg? I think we can all see the answer.

It’s been interesting to see how Minnesota’s fans and players have responded to this style. It’s so different, especially from a guy like Tracey Claeys, who most definitely had the stereotypical college football demeanor. The experiment hasn’t gone well in Year One, but it’s still Year One. That’s the main theme so far.

He’s certainly not a bad football coach, I think. He hasn’t done much with this current Minnesota roster, but the Gophers didn’t have much to begin with. He doesn’t have revolutionary schemes or a set tactical philosophy, but his adaptability and confidence always shone through at Western Michigan. Last week against Nebraska, Minnesota adjusted and finally showed the offensive potential that Minnesota fans were hoping for when the hire was announced.

What I did notice, above all, is that the media loves P.J. Fleck. They will never turn on a guy who gives that many good quotes and thoughtful answers. If this whole coaching thing doesn’t work out, he could easily become the next Jon Gruden.