Well, the Gophers lost to Nebraska. That sucked. But the season isn’t over. In fact, Minnesota has a shot at eight wins for the third time in four seasons. All they have to do is beat Northwestern or Wisconsin, but let’s not talk about the latter yet. Today, we talk about the Wildcats of
Chicago Evanston. Here to give us the lowdown on the Gophers’ next opponent is Zach Pereles, an editor for SB Nation’s Northwestern blog, Inside NU. Put your reading glasses on and check it out.
The Daily Gopher: Northwestern opened the season with back-to-back losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State. The loss to Western Michigan isn't that bad in hindsight considering the Broncos are undefeated, but losing to Illinois State? Not great, Bob. Since then, the Wildcats are 5-3, with wins over Iowa and Michigan State and competitive losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin. What keyed the turnaround?
Zach Pereles: The biggest thing I would point to is the play in both of the trenches. The offensive line was awful in the first month of the season and since has rebounded and played much better. That's helped Justin Jackson find more success on the ground but also allowed Clayton Thorson to work the ball downfield. Thorson can be very good when he has a clean pocket, but he struggled when he gets pressure. Defensively, Northwestern (with the exception of Ohio State and Wisconsin) has done a much better job stopping the run.
TDG: Junior running back Justin Jackson has now rushed for more than 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, and is arguably one of the most underrated running backs in the Big Ten. Yet, bizarrely, Northwestern ranks 106th in the country in rushing offense, averaging 140.2 rushing yards per game. How do you reconcile the two?
ZP: The early numbers really throw this off, and that's because the Wildcats just didn't run the ball that much against first-month opponents Illinois State and Nebraska. Then that problem reoccurred versus Ohio State and Wisconsin. When Northwestern runs the ball well, it often sticks to it and has good balance. But when the ground game isn't there early, it's not uncommon for Mick McCall to go extremely pass-heavy. The mark is really 25 carries for Jackson. When he gets to that number, the Wildcats are 4-0.
TDG: Where in the world did Austin Carr come from? Through ten games, the senior wide receiver has hauled in 75 receptions for 1,102 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns. Prior to this season, Carr had all of 23 receptions, 402 receiving yards, and 2 touchdowns over two seasons. What have been the keys to his success, and meant has he meant to the Wildcats' passing game?
ZP: It's been an incredible story for Carr, who came to NU as a walk-on running back. He runs outstanding routes and has really good hands, plus he's just a very smart guy who can find the holes in zone coverages. But by far the most impressive thing is his chemistry with Clayton Thorson and the confidence between the two. They're seemingly always on the same page, and that comes from lots of extra throwing sessions this offseason they organized on their own.
TDG: The Northwestern defense has been tough against both the run (36th in the country, according to S&P+) and the pass (29th). How will the Gopher offense need to attack the Wildcats in order to move the ball on Saturday?
ZP: The best way to attack the Wildcats through the air is to be accurate and efficient on short passes. The young cornerback tandem of Montre Hartage and Trae Williams tends to play way off the opposition in order to prevent big plays. Once you get things going underneath and force the duo to come closer to the line of scrimmage, you can beat them over the top; it's happened more than a few times this year.
On the ground, the Gophers have to get to the second level against a very active Northwestern linebacker corps. If Anthony Walker Jr. and the other linebackers are racking up a lot of tackles rather than leading tackler Godwin Igwebuike collecting the takedowns, you're in trouble.
TDG: Name two under-the-radar players -- one on offense and one on defense -- that Gopher fans should keep eye out for on Saturday.
ZP: Offensively, keep an eye on Garrett Dickerson. A 6-foot-4, 245-pound superback, Dickerson is often used as essentially a sixth lineman, but recently he has been a bigger part of the passing offense. Last week he reeled in a 42-yard catch-and-run score versus Purdue after slipping out on a play action fake. He also had a big play against Wisconsin on play action. He's a fantastic blocker, but don't be surprised to see him involved in the passing game, too.
Defensively, keep an eye on Nate Hall. The sophomore outside linebacker has great speed and has seen his role expand with Jaylen Prater missing the past few games. If Prater is out again (or at least limited), Hall will play a lot. He's a big guy who tackles well in space and can run with most tight ends and even some running backs.
TDG: What is your prediction for Saturday? Will the Wildcats claim their sixth win of the season and become bowl-eligible?
ZP: Northwestern 27, Minnesota 17. This is a game that's within one score for most of the game, but Northwestern puts Minnesota away with a touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter and seals a victory by turning over Mitch Leidner. It might not be the prettiest of games, but Northwestern's passing game is much more of a threat than Minnesota's is, and I'm confident in Justin Jackson being able to provide enough balance for Northwestern to leave Minneapolis with the win.
Thank you to Zach for taking the time to answer our questions! I hope that all of the Northwestern fans in Minneapolis have an amiable experience on Saturday. The bad news is that the Gophers are 7-0 against teams with at least 5 losses.
Be sure to also check out our Q&A over at Inside NU.