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A Friday Preview of a Big Ten Conference Tilt - Minnesota at Northwestern, September 26, 2009

And now it begins. The Gophers head to the shores of Lake Michigan to play the Northwestern Wildcats in both teams' Big Ten Opener (probably brought to you by Ro Tel). Both teams enter the game 2-1, but took different routes to get there. Minnesota, of course, recovered from slow starts to beat Syracuse in OT and Air Force, and played Cal even until 8 minutes remaining in the game. Northwestern, on the other hand, pounded Towson, had to eek out a victory against the Fighting Hurons of Eastern Michigan, and fell behind 17-0 to Syracuse and ended up losing to a late FG despite Mike Kafka's 8000 passing yards (by the way, how good is Paulus, or how bad is NU's pass defense?)

So, here we are, but what do we know?

We know depth charts, but I'm leaving them off here because injuries and production issues may change what the websites claim are the starting lineups. Specifically, Dinkytown is abuzz that RT Jeff Wills may be splitting time with Jeff Stommes, and Marcus Sherels should be back. Also, Northwestern will be regaining the services of various players who noone cares about because they play at Northwestern. But hey, they're smart and we'll probably work for them someday.

Here is some stuff from the Internets, specifically, the Northwestern Internets, discussing the Saturday matchup. Also, check today's and tomorrow's Nugz for more tidbits. As usual, I'm going to pick on five matchups you should consider for the game Saturday - some obvious, some pet projects of mine, some external and emotional:

(1) WR Eric Decker v. his ankle, chin and CB Sherrick McManis - the last thing I'd want to do upon returning from injury is have to defend a wideout who will be a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, and honestly, should start receiving some Heisman consideration (tell me who has performed the best this year - Decker, Tebow, Bradford, McCoy, or Snead. The answer's Decker. Let's get him to New York). The weather may limit his effectiveness tomorrow, but Gopher Nation is right - if Big Ten defenses cannot stop this guy from catching 35 passes a game, throw to him 35 times a game.

(2) QB Mike Kafka v. as usual, CB Ryan Collado - I'm beating a buried horse at this point. Great at run coverage, an absolute team killer in pass coverage. The two fourth-quarter dagger passes by Cal QB Kevin Riley were directly at Collado in coverage, and on Ross's reception to the 1 yard line, Collado turned his hips inside out and Ross had 10 yards of free space. This doesn't bode well against Kafka, who amazingly is first nationally in pass completion percentage. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is a smart guy, and his running backs are small and won't get anywhere against our veteran front seven. Unfortunately, if a team doesn't have a RB like Jahvid Best, for the rest of this season I think the Gophers are going to be treated in a similar manner to that of the Vikings in a memorable Monday Night Football game against the New England Patriots about 4 years ago: here are five wideouts. Let's find who Collado is defending, and throw to that guy all game long. Based on how Northwestern is playing ball this year (414 passing yards against Syracuse, for example), an air assault seems likely tomorrow.

Let's remember - while Cosgrove and Lee have done well making adjustments to the opposition this year, but Cosgrove's downfall in the Big Twelve, and Ronnie Lee's downfall since he left Wisconsin, has been pass defense. Starting tomorrow, they will be put to the test.  We'll see how much Cosgrove learned last year coaching his son.

(3) Minnesota's tackles v. DE Corey Wootton - Wootton might not have returned to Evanston had he not tore his ACL in San Antonio last December against Missouri in the Alamo Bowl. Regardless, he's Duane Bennett-ing his way through this year with similar results.

Despite being a step slow, that likely is a few steps faster than RT Jeff Wills, who was responsible last Saturday for just about every bad result offensively against Cal, from the first snap, a false start, to numerous sacks, to his guy recovering the Hayo Carpenter fumble, to choosing the wrong guy to block on Weber's back-breaking INT to Mohamed in the 4th quarter. It is clear that slow developing plays cannot be run by the Gophers because weak side pursuit will get past Wills and Carufel's initial blocks and catch up to a play to make the tackle, recover a fumble, or make a coverage sack. 

It now sounds like Matt Stommes will get some time at RT as well. Whatever is done, the offensive line is taking weapons out of the downfield passing attack (which should give you further indication of just how good Decker is because he is normally alone or in 2 WR route plays downfield) by needing multiple TEs and RBs to block defensive linemen which should be plugged by one O-lineman. Wills, Stommes, Carufel (who has also been very poor) and Alford need to improve in both rush and pass blocking for this team to be proficient beyond 22 ppg.

Note: For those of you looking for my play by play critique of OT Jeff Wills during the Cal game, I felt it was, despite my criticisms, premature and unfair to bring this assessment to print without allowing the Gophers to try and fix their schematic and performance mistakes. I will be charting Wills and Carufel again this week with the end result being a post comparing their Cal and Northwestern performances, cheering improvement or fearing for the Gophers as they enter the meat of their schedule. Look for it here by early next week.

(4) Minnesota v. a letdown - This is the trap game on the schedule. The Gophers were downright upset and downtrodden over losing to Cal last week. Despite that, they know that in eight days the premium game of the inaugural season at TCF takes place against their archrivals from Madison. We know they've had that game circled for a year after the epic meltdown last November. I could be saying the same thing about Northwestern, but the fact that this game is sandwiched between Cal and Wisconsin, on the road, in a pit, with hardly anyone there (lest we forget, Northwestern has the only stadium smaller than Minnesota in the Big Ten, and has scored incredibly unimpressive attendances at a CHICAGO school - 17,857 v. Towson, and 19, 239 v. EMU), makes this the trap game. Minnesota can easily win this game. They have to remember to show up at 11am to play it and not think ahead to The Axe, Tolzien, Clay and Schofield. That is on the coaches.

(5) Both teams v. Mother Nature - If you live in the Twin Cities, you'll notice right now (leave your cubicle!) the sky is grey and raindrops are falling. The forecast in Evanston, IL for tonight is rain, and for afternoon showers tomorrow. However, forecasting the weather is like forecasting a football game (unless you're me, and predicted Missouri would pound Illinois, Central Michigan would defeat Sparty and Fat Charlie would leave Ann Arbor whining), so it may very well be raining during the game. Advantage: who? Both teams are pass first squads, but if either team is cut out to try 1 FB, 2 TE downfield running with solid WR blocking, it's Minnesota. I'm looking at you, Bennett and Eskridge. Pound the Rock.

So, Big Ten opener, on the road, a comparable team, but Minnesota has more talent. Ready?

Bang your head (against a table) if: Collado and Wills and Carufel play to form, Kafka plays like 2008 Sam Bradford, and the Wildcats get any kind of run attack going.

Bang your head (like you're at a rock concert) if: More of the offensive playbook is revealed, Decker plays according to form, and Kakfa throws under 400 yards - yes, that'll be enough for the Gophers to win because Northwestern can't run.

My prediction for Saturday: Enuff Z'Nuff with the last second Northwestern victories. Minnesota will wear out Northwestern with a dose of Decker, Carpenter and Green. Kafka goes existential. Minnesota 33 - Northwestern 20.