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Northwestern (5-1) @ Minnesota (4-1)
Saturday, October 13
12:00 ET
ESPN2

Minnesota is one of those teams that has difficulties on the road and usually plays beyond their potential at home. Under Jerry Kill (who took over at the beginning of last season) Minnesota is 4-1 ATS (against the spread) at home as an underdog, including an impressive 3-2 record straight up in those games. The victories came over Iowa (+16) and Illinois (+10) last season, and vs Syracuse (+3) this season. The Gophers home field advantage is definitely something to take into consideration; however, I don’t think this matchup favors them, particularly on defense.

For some reason, Northwestern got away from what they do best last week (at Penn St), which is running the zone read with versatile QB Colter and their breakout RB Mark. Instead, the Wildcats put the game in the hands of their pocket passer, Siemian, to throw short and intermediate routes. I’m not sure if NW was intimidated by PSU’s strong front seven, or if they saw a mismatch in the passing game, but it ended up biting them in the end as they weren’t able to establish much offense in the 4th quarter, aiding in PSU’s comeback victory. The zone-read had success in the red zone, yielding two touchdowns (one by Mark, one by Colter), but the two only had 18 total carries in the game (in comparison with Siemian’s 36 pass attempts). That is a very surprising number considering that Northwestern had an 11 point lead going into the fourth quarter. I don’t expect Northwestern to follow that same strategy going into this game against Minnesota. They will look to establish the run with Colter and Mark in this game. This is the biggest key for the Wildcats, and I think they need to get Colter/Mark a combined 30-40 touches at least. If Northwestern can get those two players going, they will win this game easy. The Wildcats rushing offense that is 16th in the country (230ypg) is built off a very strong, solid offensive line that should overpower the Gopher’s front seven. Defensively, Minnesota is very small, but fast. They are strong in the secondary, and more equipped to stop a wide-open, spread, pass-happy team (like Syracuse), rather than a team with a solid running game. Their defensive line is built to rush the passer, not stop the run. They have two DE’s with great speed, but they are essentially linebackers in stature. With the exception of a 300lb DT, Minnesota has a small defensive front seven that gets eaten up by solid run blocking linemen. That was proven true when Iowa rushed for 7.3 yards per carry, just dominating the Gophers at the line of scrimmage The only way Minnesota could stop the run game was by blitzing off the edge, hoping their man would get to the ball-carrier before it was too late. This, of course, set up huge gains in play action for Iowa. If you look at some of their earlier games, Minnesota gave up 4.5ypc to UNLV and 4.3ypc to Western Michigan. Both of those teams are less than stellar in the running game, but they both managed to run the ball at a pretty good clip against the Gophers. I failed to include the rushing stats for the Syracuse
game, because SU really didn’t try to establish a run, and  a large percentage of their carries came from QB scrambles. I see Northwestern getting back to the running game, much like they did at Indiana earlier in the season when they had a huge line of scrimmage advantage and amassed nearly 400 yards rushing. Having said that, I should note that Minnesota is coming off a bye week in which they have had a little more time to study and prepare for the zone-read attack. Will that prove to be an advantage for Minnesota? It might, but I doubt it will hold up for four quarters, and I see the size, talent, and physicality of Northwestern’s offense ultimately prevailing in this one.

Offensively for the Gophers, versatile QB Marquis Gray, who sat out the past two games with
an ankle injury, may return this week. Coach Jerry Kill didn’t reveal too much information on Gray’s status, but he did say that the QB was 60-70%. If he does play, expect it to be in a limited or situational role. Last year Gray ate up Northwestern for 170 yards rushing, though the ankle injury will likely keep him from running too much in this one (if he plays at all). When Gray isn’t playing, this methodical offense led by Soph QB Max Shortell needs to focus on balance, ball control, intermediate passes, and not turning the ball over. I would compare this Minnesota offensive style with Max Shortell to the Vanderbilt offense and Jordan Rodgers, who Northwestern held in check at home in week two. Now, that doesn’t necessarily indicate that NW will be able go on the road, following that tough loss, and shut down the Gophers. There is something to be said about playing back to back road games, especially when you are coming off an emotional loss. On the other side, expect the Gophers to maybe add a few wrinkles and maybe some trick plays into their gameplan following two weeks of preparation.  That being said, ultimately Minnesota needs to limit turnovers if it wants to stay in the game. That was the recipe for success against Syracuse, as Minnesota won the turnover battle 4 to 0. However, even though the Gophers moved the ball and picked up first downs (mostly in the second half), they lost the turnover battle 0-4 in their loss to Iowa, including a costly pick-six. Look
for Northwestern to keep Minnesota’s offense in front of them, making them earn points by establishing long drives and forcing the young QB to play consistent and complete a high percentage of passes.

Ultimately, a great recipe to winning on the road is by running the ball and stopping the
run. I see Northwestern executing both here, taking away the crowd and any potential momentum for the Gophers. Offensive coordinator, Mick McCall, will make it a point of emphasis utilize the advantage Northwestern  has in the running game, especially after receiving criticism for not doing so last week. TAKE NORTHWESTERN -3.

Northwestern 31 Minnesota 20


 


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