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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Minnesota

Can the Wildcats stretch their winning streak to six?

NCAA Football: Purdue at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Northwestern Wildcats (7-3, 5-2 B1G) are coming in hot, having finally won a non-overtime game last week against Purdue. But Minnesota (5-5, 2-5) just hung 54 on Nebraska, and the Golden Gophers will do their best to break up the party in Northwestern’s home finale.

Why Northwestern will beat Minnesota

The Golden Gophers will struggle to finish drives

Northwestern’s defense has been the best unit on the team through 10 games. Though the Wildcats haven’t blown many opponents off the field, they’ve hung around and finished games thanks in large part to defensive success. One of the best aspects of the unit is their ability, thus far, to succeed with a “bend-but-don’t-break” style. Northwestern is giving up just 3.6 points per trip inside their 40, good for 14th in the country (national average is 4.41). Meanwhile, Minnesota has largely struggled to cash in on similar drives, scoring just 4.15 points per drive once they pass their opponents’ 40, which slots them in at 97th.

Finishing drives is deeply important: SBNation’s Bill Connelly uses it as one of five main factors with which he defines the oft-cited (by this blog at least) S&P+, and countless talking heads expound on its significance every Saturday. Northwestern certainly seems to have a major advantage over Minnesota when it comes to this key phase of the game.

Increased offensive line effectiveness

So far, it’s been a season of two halves for Northwestern’s offensive line. In the first 5 games, the Wildcats gave up 19 sacks, averaging 7.9 yards lost per sack. But in their most recent five matchups (all wins), the line has given up just 6 sacks, with just 4.2 average yards lost. And while Minnesota’s run defense has generally been strong, their pass rush has been inconsistent throughout the season. The Golden Gophers have 16 sacks in Big Ten play, but those have come against just 4 teams, including 6 against a struggling Nebraska team just last week. They still pose a challenge, but a seemingly peaking Northwestern offensive line should be able to provide an edge in the trenches on Saturday.

They’ll get a fast start

Northwestern has scored Big Ten opponents by 14 in the first halves of their matches this year, while Minnesota has been outscored by 20 in their first halves. That doesn’t seem like much, but Northwestern is 5-1 when they lead going into halftime, while Minnesota’s record after trailing midway through a contest is 0-4. Even if it’s just a slim margin, any Northwestern advantage at the half would bode well for the Wildcats’ chances to extend their winning streak.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Minnesota

Tyler Johnson

Minnesota’s pass offense as a whole has underperformed in 2017, but don’t tell Ty Johnson. The sophomore has been targeted on a shocking 36 percent of Minnesota’s throws, and he’s put up very good numbers: 35 catches for 677 yards (19.3 yards per catch and 10 yards per target!) with 7 out of Minnesota’s 9 passing touchdowns on the year. Northwestern fans may find themselves having flashbacks to DJ Moore during this one, as the Maryland star commanded a similar share of the Terrapins’ targets. He absolutely torched the Wildcat secondary to the tune of 12 catches for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns. Johnson is primed for a field day against a still-struggling Wildcats secondary, even if the rest of the Gophers’ passing game isn’t very threatening. Hopefully, Northwestern won’t have a key member of the defense ejected for targeting for the FOURTH time this season (yeesh).

Minnesota’s multifaceted rushing attack

The Golden Gophers are an extremely run-heavy team. Nearly 68 percent of their plays are runs, and they have 4 players with at least 40 carries: quarterback Demry Croft, senior back Kobe McCrary, and junior 1-2 punch Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith (the feature back) have combined for 2004 yards. Brooks is in the concussion protocol and may not play, but the Gopher run game will provide a stout Northwestern defense with one of their biggest tests to date regardless. Northwestern did a better job of containing more mobile quarterbacks in Tanner Lee and Brian Lewerke than they have generally done over the past couple of years, but Croft is considerably faster than either. He set a program record last week by rolling up 183 yards on the ground. Minnesota will undoubtedly pound the ball on the ground. Will Northwestern have a consistent answer?

Northwestern’s pass offense will relapse

The Wildcats broke out through the air against a Purdue team that was loading the box to stop Justin Jackson. Bennett Skowronek had a phenomenal game. Macan Wilson and Flynn Nagel were open all day. Northwestern has still struggled with finding separation against above-average secondaries for most of this season, though, and despite Clayton Thorson’s success in recent weeks, he is still sporting an 11:11 TD-to-INT ratio. Minnesota’s secondary is sneaky-good, especially at limiting big plays: the Gophers rank 15th in the country in preventing passing explosiveness, per Bill Connelly, and are generally 40th in the country in S&P+ for pass defense. Minnesota isn’t a big-name secondary, but they’re good enough to cause Clayton Thorson and the Northwestern passing game problems.