Four games remain on the Gopher schedule. As I see things there are two games that my heart wants us to win and there are two games that my head wants us to win. From the standpoint of a satisfying victory where we can relish the spoils of victory I want us to beat Michigan and Wisconsin so we can proudly display the Jug and the Axe when we open TCF Stadium next fall.
From the standpoint of maximizing our bowl game and finishing as high as possible in the Big Ten standings I think beating 6-2 Northwestern and 5-3 Iowa will do us the most good. (Ed note: I would love to have Floyd in TCF as well but the Iowa win would be more about tie breakers and final standings this year). Since Big Ten Standings and making a Jan. 1 bowl game are ultimately more important for program prestige and pay greater dividends in recruiting I guess that is what we should strive for. Obviously we want to finish 4-0, but from the stand point of which games are most important, this game is right at the top of the list.
We are aiming for a Jan. 1 bowl game. As things stand today there are only a few teams left who realistically have a shot at the Outback and Capital One bowls. Michigan is clearly out of that picture and Wisconsin is too with four Big Ten losses already. Iowa and Northwestern are still in that picture so beating them knocks them down and gives us the head to head advantage should a tie breaker be necessary.
I had no intentions of this being a bowl game breakdown, but I tihnk this helps to put into perspective that while this game may be the least sexy of our remaining four, it is vitally important to win.
Before we take a look at this year's match up lets take a quick look back. The game at Northwestern last year was our most winable Big Ten game and we completely let it slip away. The Gophers took a 35-14 lead mid way through the third quarter. NU got the ball back drove down but fumbled on the MN 11 ending that scoring opportunity. At that point Gopher fans had to feel good about getting what would be their only Big Ten win. But two Weber interceptions, a missed FG and two fourth quarter TDs for the Wildcats took this game to OT. It was in the second OT where Brewster decided to go for two, we failed, we lost.
This game was painful and typified the 2007 season. Watching tape of this game should be enough to motivate the 2008 Gophers. I've felt all along that this could be a trap game, but the memories of that game should help keep them focused on the task at hand.
When Northwestern has the ball...
Get out your roster cause their offensive skill players are changing. If you've paid any attention this week you know that the Wildcat's starting tailback, Tyrell Sutton, is out for this game and likely the season. The senior was fifth in the Big Ten in rushing and we are fortunate that we do not have to face this guy. I'm sure you also know that NU's starting QB is questionable for Saturday's game. CJ Bacher is fourth in the B10 in passing and lit the Gophers up for 470 yards last year. If Bacher does not play the more athletic (but not as an accomplished passer) Mike Kafka will be getting the snaps.
Receiving the passes the Wildcats have a balanced and experienced receiving corp. They have three seniors who each have 31-37 receptions and all have 312 yards or more. We obviously will not be able to focus on one guy too much as all three are capable of getting open and picking up yards.
The offensive game plan will be interesting and will obviously depend on which QB is playing. Either way I am expecting a ball control game plan. Teams have to realize that we are a big play defense that has really only stopped teams when they turn it over. Quick, short passes and running the ball to minimize turnovers has to be that they think will give them the best opportunity to win. If I'm Northwestern I'm telling myself that we are good enough to win if we don't beat ourselves with turnovers.
My guess is Kafka starts and his legs are utilized to maintain possession.
You've watched the Gophers play eight games and the offensive game plan should be the same tomorrow as it has been all year. The offensive line will be our primary focus tomorrow at the game and it will be critical. Northwestern leads the Big Ten in sacks and Minnesota is near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed. Can we give Weber enough time to find open receivers and move the ball.
The Wildcat's Corey Wooten is a big pass rusher who has 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. John Gill is their stud at tackle who is also in the Big Ten's top 10 for sacks. Our offensive line has struggled to come together, stay healthy and keep defenders off Weber's back.
Northwestern's defense does not have enough weapons to really stop our offense. Given time we should be able to move the ball with relative ease. But the big plays and scores may be determined by the time Weber is given. Especially with the recent emergence of Brandon Green, we now have a second weapon but we Weber will need time to find him if Green is the second option and Decker is covered.
What to Expect
So much has been made our turnover margin being the biggest (if not only) reason we have jumped to a 7-1 start. Can we win if we lose the turnover battle? In this case I think so. Obviously if we are fumbling at the goal ine, fumbling as we are running free after a blocked FG or if we throw a pick-six those turnovers are more damaging. But Northwestern is beatable even if we don't force a bunch of turnovers.
I fully expect Northwestern to also use the quick pass attack along with misdirection running with their QB. If Bacher is starting then I think they'll put him in the shot gun, hope for great protection and try to pick us a part.
Minnesota should do what we have done all year, I really don't expect anything to be any different. Brandon Green should be a significant part of the offense in the passing game and Eskridge should get his chances on screens and draws to help neutralize the Wildcate pass rush. Ultimately Decker should be able to get open at will and he may have his best game of the year.
GN - I know I've been skeptical and nervous about a let down. I think we start slow but a halftime ass chewing snaps us out of it and we dominate the second half.
Northwestern - 21
Minnesota - 34
PJS - I didn't ask him for a prediction this week. I'm assuming he thinks we win and by double digits. He can edit this when he reads it (if he ever reads what I write!).
PJS Saturday Update: I think it's going to be close. Very close.
Minnesota - 24
LTP - the Northwestern alum is pretty down after losing to the Hoosiers.
Northwestern - 16
Minnesota - 24