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Minnesota Football: Opponent Preview #6 Northwestern Wildcats

The Gophers first Big Ten home game is against the people in purple...

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In the next three weeks as we move closer to the start of the 2014 Gopher Football season, we here at The Daily Gopher will give a quick preview of the Gophers opponents. The first Big Ten home game of the year is next. Here are the Northwestern Wildcats.

Name: Northwestern Wildcats
Location: Evanston, Illinois
Conference: Big Ten (West Division)
Notable Alumni: Zach Braff, Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers, Jerry Springer, Stewart Mandel, Brent Musburger, Adam Rittenberg, George R.R. Martin, Jenna Maroney
Bill Connelly Preview Link: Here!

Last Season:

It was a season of high expectations for Northwestern last season. After a 4-0 non-conference season, Wildcat fans were excited about making a run at the Big Ten Championship Game.  They had a 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter against Ohio State at home.  And then it all collapsed in a pile of injuries, poor play, and union controversy.  Northwestern would lose that Ohio State game, and the next seven Big Ten games including a 20-17 loss to Minnesota in painful fashion.  Most notably because of this:

And then there was this:


They ended the season with a win over Illinois, but a 5-7 season and 1-7 in the Big Ten was not what was expected.  83rd in the nation in offense and 69th in defense didn't help either.

Bill C's Wisdom and Statistical Wizardy

Key Losses:

Kain Colter who did a little bit of everything for the Wildcats is now in the Vikings camp trying to make the NFL.  He had an injury addled season last year throwing for just 84 passes.  He did run for 574 yards and five touchdowns before being injured. On Tuesday night, running back Veneric Mark announced he was going to transfer from Northwestern to play closer to home.  Mark only played in three games last season with an ankle injury and was  suspended by coach Pat Fitzgerald for the first two games of the season for "a violation of team policy".  While he hasn't said this suspension is one reason for him transferring, it sure sounds like one item on his list.   In 2012 he rushed for over 1,350 yards and was a constant big gain threat.  Wildcat fans were hoping that he would regain that form this year and be a difference maker.  Not so much.

Defensively, Northwestern will miss defensive end Tyler Scott.  He had ten tackles for loss and six sacks last season for the Wildcats.  Northwestern will also miss middle linebacker Damien Proby who led the team with 87.5 tackles a year ago.  Kicker Jeff Budzien, who was perfect on PATs and field goals less than 40 yards also has departed.

Angry Northwestern Skill Position Hating God News

Key Returners:

Northwestern brings back a majority of their offensive firepower.  Quarterback Trevor Siemian is back for his senior season after playing a majority of the snaps last year.  He threw 2,143 yards and 11 touchdowns, but also 9 interceptions.  He will see all of the action this season instead of switching off with Colter.

Angry Northwestern Skill Position Hating God News

The Wildcat's top three receivers from 2013 also return, and should benefit from Siemian throwing to them consistently without having to work with two quarterbacks. Well, they did for most of camp.  Northwestern also announced that their top receiver senior Christian Jones will miss the whole season with a knee injury suffered in practice. They still have depth at the receiver position, just not nearly as much as they thought they would a week ago.

The Wildcats also return their entire starting offensive line, which should be a big advantage.  They performed well run blocking last season but will need to take a step forward to protect Siemian for the whole season.

On defense Northwestern returns half of its starting defensive line, and has both outside linebackers returning.  Will backer Chi Chi Ariguzo will lead the squad after achieving 84 tackles in 2013. He also led the team with four interceptions. The Wildcats also return their entire starting secondary.  They were all freshmen and sophomores thrown to the wolves last season, but after another off-season will be expected to step up and try and keep the Wildcats in games.

Question Marks??

The major question for Northwestern will be can they stay healthy? The answer appears to be no.  The Jones injury is bad enough, but with Mark transferring, Northwestern can not afford any other injuries to important  players.   Injuries crippled them last season, and have started to already this year. One ot two more and it could be another long season for Northwestern.

The next question will be can Northwestern get off to a good start in the non-conference season after their tumultuous preseason camp.  They play Cal and Northern Illinois to begin the season, not an easy task that now is even more tough.  The pressure will be fully on Siemian to lead the Wildcats past two teams that will definitely be looking to get a win no matter the circumstances.

Thirdly, will Northwestern be able to live up to the hype put upon it again?  They crumbled last year after many predicted the Wildcats to win the Big Ten.  This year many in the media ranked them to finish third or fourth in the Big Ten West.  Obviously this was pre-Mark and Jones news, but it seemed Northwestern was overvalued again.  Will they be able to overcome some hardships, or once the crap hits the fan (as it now is starting to) will they go into full cocoon mode and just try struggle to make a bowl game.

What Does It All Mean For Minnesota?

The Gophers struggled in the first half of the game in Evanston last fall before pulling out a tight victory thanks to a much needed James Manuel pick 6.  This is a must win game for Minnesota.  If they don't win this game, it is fairly likely they will need to win two of their last four against Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin to make a bowl game. The Gophers defense should be able to hold the Wildcat offense in check.  Without Mark, the Wildcats will using running backs who gained some experience last season, but will not be the big play threat that mark was.  The question will be whether the Gopher offense can put everything together to control play and win.  The Gopher running game will be tested by the strength of the Northwestern linebackers, but there should be holes for the Gopher tight ends to find seams for big gains.

Final Analysis:

Again this is a must win for the Gophers.  They will have a good crowd at TCF Bank Stadium, and they need to use that to their benefit. After a bye week they should be very prepared to do what they need to do to get the win, the question will just be if they can execute.  Leidner will need to have a good game and take advantage of what the Wildcats will give him.  There should be openings. If he does that, the Gophers will win.  If he struggles, its going to be a lot closer than many Gopher fans would like.  I think he pulls it out.  Gophers win 24-14 .