Season Record: 7-3 (5-2 B1G)
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (84-65, 12th year at Northwestern)
2017 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 62nd
2016 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 49th
I’m not sure anyone expected the Northwestern Wildcats to be all alone in second place in the Big Ten West at this point in the season, but here we are. The Wildcats were able to bounce back from a 2-3 start, which included a blowout loss to Duke that looks more bizarre now that the Blue Devils have lost six straight, by winning five consecutive conference games. That five-game winning streak has included victories over Iowa and Michigan State. With Minnesota struggling, Iowa reserving most of their offensive playbook for Ohio State, and Nebraska face planting, Northwestern has emerged from the division scrum comparatively unscathed.
The Wildcats’ have a formidable one-two punch on offense in the form of junior quarterback Clayton Thorson and senior running back Justin Jackson. When Thorson struggled against Maryland and Nebraska, throwing four interceptions, Jackson put the team on his back, rushing for a combined 325 yards on 59 carries, with three rushing touchdowns. When Jackson was bottled up against Michigan State and Purdue, who combined to hold him to 87 rushing yards on 42 carries with one touchdown, Thorson stepped up his game. Against the Spartans and the Boilermakers, the Wildcats’ third-year starting signal caller was 59-of-94 (62.7%) for 652 yards, with three passing touchdowns and no interceptions.
If the Gophers are able to slow Jackson, they’ll need to account for Thorson. He is a threat with his legs, having scored at least one rushing touchdown in each game of the Wildcats’ current five-game win streak. The Wildcats’ veteran offensive line has also been able to keep him clean for the most part. The unit has rebounded from allowing a combined 12 sacks to Wisconsin and Penn State, and have allowed a total of six sacks over their last five games.
His most explosive target in the passing game has been Bennett Skowronek (39 receptions, 544 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns). The sophomore wide receiver has the speed to stretch the field and the size and strength to make contested catches. Junior wide receiver Flynn Nagel (41 receptions, 440 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns) leads the team in receptions. What he lacks in big play ability he makes up for in consistency. I would also look out for senior wide receiver Macan Wilson (31 receptions, 438 receiving yards, 1 touchdown), who has had at least four receptions in five of their last six games. Senior Garrett Dickerson is their most active tight end in the passing game, with 32 receptions, 343 receiving yards, and one touchdown.
This isn’t an explosive offense — S&P+ ranks them 125th in IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of the big plays an offense creates — but the Wildcats are capable of putting together long scoring drives that wear the defense.
Verdict: The Gophers will need a complete performance from their defense. Michigan was able to run all over them. Nebraska had quite a bit of success through the air, even with their back-up quarterback. This is a patient Northwestern offense that waits for the defense to make a mistake. If Minnesota is able to take away one facet of their offense, the Wildcats have shown the ability to lean on another. We’ll see if the Gophers are up to the task of shutting them down.
I hope you appreciated the Gophers’ 400-yard rushing performance against Nebraska, because I doubt we’ll see anything close to that this week. Northwestern boasts one of the best rushing defenses in college football. Since Duke rushed for 233 yards against the Wildcats in Week 2, only two opposing teams have rushed for 100 yards or more against this Northwestern defense. It’s been one of the keys to their current five-game winning streak, during which the Wildcats have allowed an average of 84.2 rushing yards per game.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Paddy Fisher, who leads the team in tackles with 95, is going to be a nuisance for years to come. He is big and physical with a 6’4’’, 245-lb. frame, but has the speed to play from sideline-to-sideline. Junior linebacker Nate Hall is also a force to be reckoned with, as he leads the Wildcat defense with 11 tackles for loss. If the Gophers plan to run the ball on Saturday, they’ll need to go through Fisher and Hall.
Northwestern’s defense doesn’t seem nearly as air tight against the pass. The Wildcats’ secondary is led by senior safety Godwin Igwebuike, who is third on the team in tackles. But the unit is allowing an average of 278.9 passing yards per game, which ranks 118th nationally. They’re not allowing a ton of huge plays down the field, but have been vulnerable to chunk plays of 15-20 yards. That would seem to work in the Gophers’ favor, as Minnesota has not been able to stretch the field for the most part. But with 10 interceptions on the year, the Wildcats’ defensive backs are opportunistic.
The Wildcats’ most dangerous pass rushers are sophomore defensive ends Trent Goens and Joe Gaziano. Goens had a lot of success against Purdue last week when the Boilermakers abandoned the run when trailing. Minnesota will need to avoid obvious passing downs to keep Goens and Gaziano from pinning their ears back, but that will be predicated on whether the Gophers can find running room on first and second down.
Verdict: It’ll depend on whether or not Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft can force the Wildcats out of the box with his arm. Northwestern is going to focus on shutting down the running attack, because Croft has not shown the ability as of yet to be able to consistently threaten opposing defenses through the air. That will need to change on Saturday if the Gophers hope to beat the Wildcats and become bowl-eligible.
Prediction: Northwestern 24, Minnesota 17. The Wildcats are 5-1 at home this season, and I still have nightmares about the Gophers’ last visit to Evanston. Unless Croft and his receiving corps are able to take a significant step forward in the passing game, Minnesota is going to struggle to move the football against a tough Northwestern defense. Opposing teams have attempted to make the Wildcats’ offense one-dimensional, but either Thorson or Jackson have stepped up to be the hero every time. It’ll be a hard-fought game, but I think Northwestern having the more versatile offense will be the difference in the end.