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Northwestern vs. Minnesota preview: Three matchups to watch

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Can the Wildcats make it six in a row?

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

Now up to No. 23 in the CFP Rankings, the Wildcats will hope to hold serve against P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota team.

1. Justin Jackson AND Jeremy Larkin vs. Minnesota Front Seven

It’s not all on Justin Jackson’s shoulders anymore. Well, that’s not really true – the Northwestern rushing king has not, and will not, be dethroned this season (if ever). However, his protégé Jeremy Larkin has shown early signs of Jackson’s patient yet quick style. Lately, Larkin has shown the running back position will be left in good hands when Jackson is gone next season. Although he hasn’t matched Jackson’s freshman year statistics, Larkin has 284 yards and 3 touchdowns on 57 carries thus far in his redshirt freshman season. He’s also made some massive plays for Northwestern, including these two against Iowa and Nebraska:

Again, Justin Jackson is still Northwestern’s greatest offensive asset. The senior has 8 touchdowns and 844 rushing yards this season and four 100+ rushing yard games, including 171 against Maryland and 154 against Nebraska. Jackson is 41st in individual rushing yards (by S&P) and has exhibited his ability to tear through defenses. However, Jackson has struggled when solid defensive teams have targeted him, which most have learned to do at this point in his career. He tallied only 25 rushing yards against Wisconsin, 41 against Michigan State, and 46 against Purdue last weekend.

Therefore, the Minnesota front seven could pose a challenge to Jackson, as they’ve allowed a fairly solid 150.2 rushing yards per game. Although Nebraska’s run game isn’t particularly impressive, the Golden Gophers’ held them to just 69 total rushing yards while the Wildcats let up almost double that. A big game by Jackson is usually required to lead to the Wildcats to a win, so he’ll have to do what he does best and find the gaps in Minnesota’s front seven to rack up the rushing yards for Northwestern.

Northwestern’s Wide Receivers vs. Minnesota secondary

Northwestern has been forced to rely on its passing game more and more this season, as defenses have learned to key in on Jackson and the running game. Although Clayton Thorson and the receivers have been plagued by inconsistency this season, they have performed very well recently. Led by Bennett Skowronek, Flynn Nagel, and Macan Wilson, the receivers have stepped up and made huge plays for the Wildcats.

The receivers also run deep, as Riley Lees has scored 2 touchdowns with just 18 receptions and has made some big plays - including tying the game against Nevada at the beginning of the season:

Last week, Northwestern was forced to rely on Thorson and his receivers more than usual, as the Boilermakers virtually shut Jackson down. Bennett Skowronek, who hadn’t surpassed 100 receiving yards since the first game of the season, tallied 117 against Purdue on 7 receptions - one of which was a crucially important touchdown which doubled Northwestern’s lead and made it a two possession game going into halftime.

Minnesota is 40th in defensive passing efficiency by S&P+ and has allowed only 10 passing touchdowns this season. Although they haven’t been particularly impressive, Minnesota’s run defense will likely force Northwestern to rely on passing again, which will have to reflect the consistency shown in recent games in order to beat the Gophers’ secondary.

NU’s Front Seven vs. Minnesota running backs

Northwestern’s run defense has performed consistently well and been a highlight of the team thus far. Although Minnesota isn’t solely defined as a run-heavy team, its offensive production has been largely due to running backs Kobe McCrary and Rodney Smith. That’s not to belittle the importance of wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who’s had over a third of the team’s touchdowns this season, including a 67-yard touchdown catch against Oregon State and 3 touchdowns against Michigan State.

However, Smith and McCrary have combined for more than half of the team’s scoring this season and over 1,200 rushing yards. The Gophers run deep in this area, with junior running back Shannon Brooks adding 5 touchdowns as well. Brooks has missed the last two games, though, and he’s up in the air for this weekend. Although Minnesota’s offense has struggled on a few occasions this season, its season-lows came against Iowa and Michigan. They also ran-over (literally) the Nebraska defense - a team which forced Northwestern into overtime - with 409 total rushing yards. Smith had an impressive 134 rushing yard performance, which, coupled with McCray’s 93 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns, shows how potentially dangerous this pair is.

That said, Northwestern’s defense (which has allowed only 1,096 rushing yards all season) is far better than Nebraska’s. The Wildcats should be able to plug the holes much better than the Cornhuskers’ front seven. Tyler Lancaster and the run defense will have to show up ready to make the same big stops that they’ve made against some of the top running offenses in the country.