Tomorrow's match-up with Northwestern might be the most interesting game of the season. We knew that UNLV and New Hampshire were just plain not as talented as the Gophers and the only thing we would really learn about the Gophers would be learned if we had lost. We knew exactly what to expect from Western Michigan and Iowa as a pass-heavy and a power running team respectively. Syracuse was a bit more of a mystery but we also were pretty aware that you had to slow down Ryan Nassib and Marcus Sales in order to win. Heading into each of our first five games I felt like we all had a pretty idea of what we needed to do and what we needed to stop in order to come away with a win. Four times we did what was needed, one time we clearly did not and the record stands at a very clear 4-1.
Northwester, however is a completely different animal (technically we already played a Wildcats team, so not really a different animal). This isn't about them being a more balanced team but they are a team that is far less predictable. There are a ton of variables and questions marks all over the place for tomorrow which makes this game very difficult to predict. So rather than go the traditional route of NU offense vs. MN defense (and vice versa), I just want to list some of the many questions and variables that makes this game very intriguing.
Who will get the snaps at quarterback?
MarQueis Gray is not on the injury report but he is also listed as #2 on the depth chart. This is Jerry Kill messing with Pat Fitzgerald's mind a little bit. If Gray is still hampered by his knee or ankle then one would think he'd at least show up on the injury report, right? I think we all know that if Gray is truly healthy, he will be starting and will play the entire game under center. Maybe Gray is really healthy and will play the whole game. Maybe he is still gimpy and will only play if something happens to Shortell. Maybe they both get to see some action.
I really think you will either see all Gray or no Gray (no shades of Gray!?!). If he is healthy enough to play, he should be on the field as often as possible. If he is not 100% healthy and slowed at all by his ankle or knee, then he has no business playing. His legs and making big plays with them is his strength, if that is hampered then why would you play him? It really is that simple. I do however, like that this will still be a major question until the offense takes the field. But even then it may be misleading, remember last year how Shortell started the Purdue game but Gray took over on the second offensive series and played the rest of the game.
Who will get the snaps at quarterback?
Northwestern will certainly utilize two quarterbacks tomorrow. One throws, the other usually runs (but he can throw a little too to keep you honest). Last week in their loss to Penn State, Kain Colter did not throw a pass. But on the season he has attempted 68 passes completing 66% of them and connecting on two touchdowns. On top of his 369 passing yards he has 395 rushing and 148 receiving. He can be found anywhere along their offensive formations giving Trevor Siemian the opportunity to throw the ball, often back to Colter. Siemian has 807 passsing yards on 120 attempts with a 65% completion percentage. The Northwestern offense works to keep you on your heels by changing their personnel and formations and they have the play-book to match.
While we are not sure which quarterback will see time on Saturday, we KNOW Northwestern will play both.
Will having two weeks to prepare be an advantage for Minnesota?
Getting an extra week to watch film, correct mistakes, get back to fundamentals and get healthy is always a huge bonus. After getting run over by Iowa and making some glaring mistakes when it comes to defensive assignments and fundamentals, two weeks to correct may be exactly what the doctor ordered. I do think this really gives us an increased shot at winning.
How will losing to Penn State refocus Northwestern?
Unfortunately I think this loss to Penn State will be exactly what Northwestern needed to prevent them from overlooking the Gophers. Nobody ever says they will overlook an opponent but we have seen it time and time again in sports, it is just human nature. Were the Cats 6-0, with a huge game hosting Nebraska next week, how could they not take the Gophers for granted after seeing film of us getting beat up by Iowa? They would be ripe for a trap game. Losing to a team they were favored to beat will get a team back on the "one game at a time" ship faster than a coach pounding it into their heads. They now realize that a road game is tough and going into the Nebraska game 1-2 in the Big Ten makes a trip to Indianapolis more unlikely than it already is.
Penn State coming back to win was the worst possible outcome for the Gophers.
Who will be most slowed down by the rain?
It is going to be wet tomorrow, but I'm not sure the rain will be a major factor. According to Accuweather.com the rain will quit somewhere around kickoff and won't pick up again until after the game is over. That could all change and maybe it is a downpour for much of the game, but assuming it is just a steady rain or weaker I don't think it will have a major impact on the game. The turf should be relatively sound for both teams and the balls are kept relatively dry, I don't see this having a major impact.
Can the Gopher defense contain a good running back?
Better question might be, will they be able to focus on Colter and Venric Mark? Mark is a fast back and both he and Colter are going to be guys trying to get by our defenders, rather than through them. Defensively we need to be sharp with our angles and sound with our tackling fundamentals. This really needs to be the focus of the defense. Shut down the NU running game (which I realize we haven't done all year) and make them beat us through the air.
Defense vs. Offense, who has the advantage?
I think the Gopher defense and the Wildcat offense are each team's relative strength. So that match-up is pretty important. The Wildcat defense is rather bad and leaves an opening for our offense to move the ball and maybe score some points. But can we be efficient enough? Can we move the ball through the air if Gray is under center?
Northwestern is 11th in the Big Ten in total defense. Penn State, a middle of the road offense, put up 22 points in the 4th quarter on them. This defense is vulnerable and hasn't answered the questions it was facing at the start of the year. The Gophers should be able to move the ball, but they need to cut down mistakes and capitalize then they have a shot at points.
Who will win this important game?
This game really is important for the Gophers. If they want to get to that magical sixth win it is going to be REALLY hard if they lose this one. Illinois is one we are looking at as a win and the rest of the schedule is pretty tough. Northwestern is good, but they are vulnerable. We are at home for homecoming and with a near sellout is should be another great atmosphere. I like the Gopher's chances and I am very hopeful for a win.