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Minnesota Football vs Northwestern: Preview - Key Matchups

Two banged up Big Ten teams will do battle in Evanston when the Golden Gophers open up conference play with a huge road test against the undefeated Northwestern Wildcats.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The good news? The Minnesota Golden Gophers survived their non-conference schedule with a 3-1 record, which is the outcome most of the fans on here expected, I believe. The bad news? The Gophers are banged up, and a formidable challenge awaits them on the road in the form of the Northwestern Wildcats. Fans won't have to wait long to find out if Minnesota is going to contend again in the Big Ten West, as this Saturday's game pits them against one of the few Big Ten teams that has had an impressive start to the season.

Northwestern is 4-0 to start the season and is ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press Poll and No. 17 in the Coaches Poll. Their ranking is well deserved after a 16-6 win at home against the Stanford Cardinal in Week 1 and a 19-10 road win over the Duke Blue Devils in Week 3. Sandwiched in between those two Power 5 matchups was a blowout 41-0 win over the Eastern Illinois Panthers out of the FCS. Last Saturday, Northwestern ran into some unexpected trouble in a home matchup with the Ball State Cardinals. Freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson and the offense struggled in the first half and Ball State led 10-7 at the break, before the Wildcats marched to a 24-10 lead in the third quarter. But the Cardinals continued to hang around, rallying late to cut the deficit to 24-19. Northwestern would hold on to win, but victory came at a cost, with seven different players leaving the game due to injuries, including safety Godwin Igwebuike, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, and left tackle Geoff Mogus.

Much of the credit for the Wildcats' undefeated non-conference slate belongs to sophomore running back Justin Jackson and the defense. Through the first four games, Jackson has rushed for 516 yards on 118 carries with 1 touchdown. His lack of touchdowns is more a symptom of an offense that has thus far struggled to put up points against teams that aren't Eastern Illinois. That has put tremendous pressure on the defense, but that side of the ball has been more than up to the task. The Wildcats' defense is ranked No. 11 in total defense, No. 39 in rushing defense, No. 10 in passing defense, and No. 3 in scoring defense. This is an elite defensive unit that will represent a significant challenge for the Gophers' offense on Saturday.

So what are the matchups that will be the difference in this game?

Gophers' defensive line vs Wildcats' quarterback. I'll be honest, it was difficult to pinpoint the focal point of this offense, because Northwestern hasn't scored a whole lot of touchdowns against opponents other than Eastern Illinois. Justin Jackson piles up a lot of yards on the ground, but has found the end zone just once in four games, and that one touchdown came against Eastern Illinois. Strangely enough, as much as he appears to have struggled in the box score, quarterback Clayton Thorson is their leading scorer, with four passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns through the first four games. His closest competition is their field goal kicker Jack Mitchell, who is 8-for-10 on the season thus far. Thorson is an inconsistent passer and will never wow you in the box score (that sounds familiar...), but he has had a penchant for big plays in the Wildcats' first four games, with touchdown passes of 44 and 66 yards and a touchdown run of 42 yards.

The Gophers' defensive line, outside of defensive tackle Steven Richardson and the occasional sighting of Julian Huff at defensive end, has had a quiet start to the season. Too quiet, if I'm being honest. Minnesota is tied for 99th in the nation in total sacks on defense, with 5 on the season. That must improve. It was an area of concern last season and continues to be one this season. Against Ohio in the first half, the defensive line struggled to pressure the Bobcats' quarterback Derrius Vick and he was able to pick apart the Gophers' secondary for the most part, throwing for two touchdowns before halftime. It improved in the second half, with Richardson collecting a sack and De'Vondre Campbell recording another, but we're going to need more pressure from defensive ends Theiren Cockran and Hendrick Ekpe moving forward.

The key on Saturday will be whether or not the defensive line can pressure and contain Thorson. If he has time to throw in the pocket or is allowed to escape, he can burn the Gophers' on the ground or through the air, especially if the secondary is without injured starters Damarius Travis, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, and Antonio Johnson. Northwestern is also banged up on the offensive line, with back-up left tackle Adam DePietro out and starter Geoff Mogus having left Saturday's game against Ball State with an apparent head injury (it is unknown if the Wildcats will have him back against Minnesota). Matt Frazier, the lineman projected to start at right guard for the Wildcats prior to the season has been out since the opener with a staph infection.

Gophers' wide receivers vs Wildcats' defensive backs. As much as Northwestern has struggled to score, opposing offenses have scored even less against their defense. The Wildcat's defense has allowed one rushing touchdown, three passing touchdowns, and five field goals through four games. For comparison, the Gophers' defense has allowed three rushing touchdowns, four passing touchdowns, and five field goals this season. Similar results, but the Wildcats hadn't allowed a passing touchdown on defense until the game against Ball State, where their secondary sprung a leak in large part due sophomore safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro being knocked out of the game. Queiro is out with a broken arm and Igwebuike's status is unknown for Saturday.

If the Wildcats continue to be vulnerable through the air, the Gophers will need to capitalize, because Minnesota can't afford to be one-dimensional and lean on the running game against this defense and expect to score or even move the ball.

The Gophers' offense will look to build on a strong showing from the passing game a week ago. Mitch Leidner threw for a career high 264 yards against the Ohio Bobcats, completing 68 percent of his passes and connecting with nine different receivers throughout the game. Freshman running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks were a huge part of the offense's success, but it was the passing game that came through in the clutch when the Gophers needed it most. This young receiving corps is coming off their best game of the season, as Isaiah Gentry, Rashad Still, and Eric Carter all made key catches down the stretch against Ohio. KJ Maye has been Leidner's top target through the first four games, but he'll also need Drew Wolitarsky back from a concussion.

Obviously, there are a lot of similarities between these two teams, and both are dealing with a laundry list of injuries at the moment. I expect this to be a low-scoring defensive battle similar to what we've seen the past three times these teams have clashed. The Gophers certainly have their work cut out for them against a tough opponent.

Are there any other matchups that you think could make or break this game?