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Minnesota Football: Opponent Preview #5 Northwestern Wildcats

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The Gophers kick off the Big Ten season in Evanston

Justin Jackson impressed as a true freshman last season
Justin Jackson impressed as a true freshman last season
Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

In the next two weeks as we move closer to the start of the 2015 Gopher Football season, we here at The Daily Gopher will give a quick preview of the Gophers opponents. We have reached the Big Ten portion of our season, and first up is a trip to Evanston to play the Northwestern Wildcats

Name: Northwestern Wildcats
Location: Evanston, Illinois
Enrollment:21,000
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:

Last season was not one to be remembered fondly by Wildcat fans.  Between injuries, and transfers, the Wildcats did not get off to a great start.  They dropped their first two non-conference games before pulling off three wins in a row, including one over Wisconsin. Then the Wildcats showed up to TCF.  The Gophers and Northwestern were in a tight battle until Jalen Myrick took a kickoff 100 yards back to the house to out the Gophers ahead for good in a 24-17 win. That was the beginning of a four game tailspin that found Northwestern in a must-win game against Illinois on the last wee of the season with the winner going to a bowl game, and the loser staying home.  With a 47-33 loss, the Wildcats stayed home, and began the long waiting period thinking about 2015.

Key Losses:

Goodbye Trevor Siemien. It seems like he was one of those guys on the 8 year plan, but he has moved onto trying to make it in the NFL, and we will have fresh blood behind center this fall for Northwestern.  Of course his 2014 was not one to write home about, so this may actually please Wildcat fans.  Kyle Prater and Tony Jones will be missing from the receiver corps in 2015, which will cut down on the number of returning targets for NU. They will need to make up 86 catches for just over 850 yards in 2015.  What may hurt the most is the loss of three starting O-Linemen. Brandon Vitabile, Jack Konopka and Paul Jorgenson will take with them their 101 career starts.  Ouch.

On defense Northwestern was fairly good against the run.  That will be tested as their best linebackers from 2014, Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall have departed.  Ariguzo led the Wildcats with 84.5 tackles in 2014 from the Will spot.  The only secondary member to leave is a large one.  Ibraheim Campbell heads off to the NFL after tying for the team lead with 3 interceptions.  Punter Chris Gradone also will not return in 2015.

Key Returners:

The biggest returner of all is undoubtedly Justin Jackson.  The true freshman running back ran for 1187 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago, improving as the season went on. He gives the Wildcats a true rushing threat, one they may really need as the passing game is highly questionable.  Northwestern does return receiver Dan Vitale who always seems to make big plays when needed, and should get a huge boost with the return of 2013 leading receiver Christian Jones who missed last season with a knee injury.  The Wildcats will have five junior or senior starters on the offensive line, but will need to come together quickly to help Jackson live up to his potential.

On defense Northwestern returns its entire starting defensive line.  They will need to play well to cover the potential gaps in the linebacker corps.  They are led by  Dean Lowry who had 33 tackles and a team leading four sacks.  Yes just four.  Anthony Walker is the only returning linebacker and will need to shine in the Mike spot.  He only had 40 tackles a year ago, but will be expected to produce much more in 2015.  The secondary is in good shape with the return of both starting corners and a safety.  Mathew Harris and Nick VanHoose are good on the ball defenders, and if Northwestern can find a pass rush, then this could be a strong unit.  Kicker Jack Mitchell returns and had a decent 2014 going 26-28 on PATs and 14-18 on field goals.

Question Marks??

The major question mark for Northwestern will be if Zack Oliver can take over the quarterback spot with success.  He played in the regular season finale against Illinois but threw three interceptions.  If he can't be the answer they may have to look to four-star sophomore Matt Alviti to see if he can handle the job.

The next question is whether Pat Fitzgerald can get his team to play with the defensive intensity that all good Northwestern teams have.  Some of the pieces are in place, but if they can't out it all together, it will be tough for Northwestern to make a bowl game.

Thirdly, will Justin Jackson have a sophomore slump, or show that he is one of the top three backs in the Big Ten.  if he falters, things could go ugly in a hurry.  But if he can have another great season, Northwestern will be in a lot of games to the very end.

What Does It All Mean For Minnesota?

The Gophers will need to come to Evanston ready to play.  On paper Minnesota is the better team, but the last several games against the Wildcats have all been decided by a touchdown or less.  Offensively, the Gophers will need to run the ball well against a decent run defense.  If the Gophers O-line can get an initial push, hopefully the Gopher backs can punish the raw linebacker group for Northwestern and turn three and four yard gains into nine or ten.  This will also be another big game for the Gophers short passing game, either looking for success on bubble screens or tight end plays in the middle of the field.

On defense, the Gophers will have a major goal, and that's slow Jackson.  He had a good game against the Gophers a year ago, and if he does again, I'm sure the Wildcats will make it a game.  Containing him and getting a good pass rush will be key.  If Oliver is at QB for Northwestern, he has shown a tendency to throw interceptions, so with a good pass rush forcing him to make poor decisions, the Gophers star secondary should be able to make some plays.

Final Analysis:

The Wildcats always play the Gophers tough in recent years,and I don't expect this to be much different.  With non-conference games against Stanford and at Duke, Northwestern realistically looks at 2-2 coming into the Big Ten at best.  The Wildcats also may be looking ahead to a rematch of the epic "MOON Game" against Michigan the week after.  The Gophers will need to do what the do best...establish the run, and force turnovers on defense.  Northwestern will keep this a game I believe, but helped by a Pick 6 I think the Gophers hang tough and pull out a 27-20 victory.  For the Gophers to get to the heights that they all want, this is a must win.