I often try to make a post quick, but usually I then end up researching and making the post much longer than I originally planned so we'll see how this goes.
The Wildcats come to visit the Golden Gophers on Saturday for the first Big Ten game of the 2010 season. This has been an absolute disaster of a season thus far. Had anyone done a post in August outlining the worst case scenario for the Gophers heading into the Big Ten season it wouldn't have been projected to be as bad as it really is. BUT even with the ugliness that we have endured the Big Ten season is here and we are 0-0. Are these Gophers capable of beating the Wildcats? Yes they are. But are they going to play well enough to win? There is no reason to have any confidence that will take place.
Northwestern on Offense
The good news is that the Wildcats have yet to find a running back to they can rely upon. Mike Trumpy is the latest back who will get a chance to carry the load for NU. The redshirt freshman had a nice 2nd half last week against Central Michigan and will get a lot of carries along with Jacob Schmidt. Neither of these guys should strike fear into the hearts of Gopher fans.
The bad news is that the Gopher defense has yet to show they can slow down any rushing attack. This might be the game where pedestrian backs look like Heisman candidates. This is also the type of offense that will allow their QB to rack up significant yards on the ground. The NU signal caller, Dan Persa, leads their team in rushing and is going to be a threat on every down tomorrow afternoon. Overall the NU running game is 10th in the Big Ten in yards per game and 11th in yards per carry. Based on what we have seen by the Gopher defense this year, expect those numbers to improve against this defense that is allowing 187 yards per game on the ground.
It gets worse when we look at the NU passing attack. Dan Persa is completing 80.2% of his passes and as mentioned he leads the team in rushing. Persa is the NU offense. Completing 80% of your passes is just crazy and extremely scary when you factor in the Gophers soft secondary. Currently only Purdue's pass defense allows a higher completion % than our Golden Gopher secondary. Expect quick passes against soft coverages all day long.
The NU offensive line has given up a league leading 11 sacks but I'd be surprised to see Persa holding the ball long enough to get sacked tomorrow night.
It should also be noted that after scoring touchdowns the Wildcat special teams has missed three extra points this year. So we've got that going for us (kind of).
Minnesota on Offense
Through four games the offense hasn't been the problem, but they are going to have to score a lot of points on Saturday to get the Gophers to a homecoming victory. Statistically the NU defense is just as bad as Minnesota's. They have done well against the run but are next to last in the league in passing yards allowed. Much of that can be attributed to teams trailing and throwing often against the Wildcat defense. But in total yards allowed NU is 9th in the Big Ten while the Gophers are 10th. The big difference is points allowed where NU is giving up just 15.5 ppg to the Gopher's 31. That is where things are ugly.
Offensively we absolutely need to convert red zone drives into touchdowns. Currently we are last in the Big Ten in TDs per Red Zone visit (13 opportunities, 7 TDs, 53.8%). If you want an offensive key to the game that is it, converting drives into TDs not FG attempts.
Basically I'm expecting when we have the ball you will see the same thing you've been seeing all year. With one primary exception. MarQueis Gray! I think you will see Gray much more involved in the Gopher offense. Watch for an end around or two. Maybe an end around, pass. Maybe he'll be under center in the Wildcat formation. But rather than seeing Gray get 8 or 9 touches per game when Weber throws it his way, expect him to get closer to 15 touches tomorrow. Last year NU had no answer for Gray and I'm sure they are preparing for him this time around. But this is when the offensive playbook opens up just a little bit.
In the End
It is really hard to predict a Gopher W tomorrow. We were just dominated by NIU and our defense has given up huge play after huge play. NU's offense is highly efficient and relatively potent. On the plus side this is the one series where Brewster has actually been pretty successful. Were it not for a key interception in 2007 and 2008 Brewster would be undefeated against Fitz and the Wildcats. I blame Brewster for a lot but the two losses to NU in the Brewster Era fall on the shoulders of #8. Maybe we have Fitz's number and maybe we play well enough to win. I've been beaten into submission by the pessimists living in Gopher Nation. I'm expecting a loss and will be pleasantly surprised (though not completely shocked) if we win.