TSX Report: Northwestern

Northwestern at Minnesota, Oct. 2 -- The Wildcats head into this Big Ten opener as a slight favorite, but NU won't be fooled by that. The Wildcats well remember how Minnesota came to Evanston for last year's league opener and out-toughed them for a 35-24 win.

Judging solely by Northwestern's rushing yards per game, the Wildcats are right in the middle of the national rankings. NU averaged 149.8 rushing yards (good for 64th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams) while breaking out to its second 4-0 start in the last 48 seasons.

But if you measure rushing success by yards per attempt, which seems to be more relevant, the Wildcats don't fare nearly as well. Going into Saturday's Big Ten opener at Minnesota, they're posting just 3.19 yards per carry. That's 96th among FBS teams, and Oklahoma is the only team with a worse rushing average that remains undefeated.

Realizing the need for a better running game, Northwestern's coaches shook up the depth chart this week. Encouraged by junior Jacob Schmidt's two touchdowns on Saturday against Central Michigan (his first against an FBS opponent) and redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy's 12 second-half carries for 53 yards in his first important action, NU elevated them to co-starter status.

"I thought Mike ran with an attitude," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said told the Daily Herald. "I thought he ran hard. I thought he was decisive. I think some of the previous games, some of the looks (for the running backs) were very similar, and we had maybe zero gain or a negative gain. There were a couple of runs where I thought he got a one-yard gain or two-yard gain that were his most productive runs because we didn't set ourselves behind the chains.

"It was now a second-and-8 instead of a second-and-12 -- and those four yards are huge. Those are huge, huge differences in whether or not we can be successful."

That was the big issue with sophomore Arby Fields, the starter in the first four games. In just 56 carries this year, the 5-foot-9, 200-pound Fields suffered 26 yards' worth of losses. Fields drops to third-string status alongside senior Stephen Simmons. It's not quite as much of a demotion as it sounds because the Wildcats have used three and four tailbacks since the start of last season.

Northwestern also might be making this change at the perfect time to experience success. Minnesota ranks 97th nationally in rushing defense (187.8 ypg) and allowed 223 yards to Northern Illinois' Chad Spann last Saturday.

"The Northern Illinois guy proved that they can be run on," Schmidt said in the Herald. "Obviously we're going to prepare this week and that's our goal: To come out Saturday and shove it down their throat."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Does Northwestern QB Dan Persa deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Michigan's Denard Robinson and Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor? According to the Big Ten's total offense stats, it makes complete sense.

Robinson, who leads the nation in rushing, also leads the Big Ten in total offense with 354.8 yards per game. Persa ranks next (305.2 ypg), and Pryor stands third with 302.0.

Robinson has accounted for 10 touchdowns (six rushing). Persa has accounted for 10 touchdowns (two rushing). Pryor, on the other hand, has produced 14 touchdowns for the second-ranked Buckeyes. That includes three rushing scores and one receiving TD.

--Northwestern likes to use 1995 as the demarcation point between its lowly past and its preferred present. For example, in addition to listing the team's overall record against an opponent, it also will note how the Wildcats have fared against the foe since 1995. NU is 6-5 versus the Gophers during that stretch.

However, this gambit doesn't work as well when it comes to Big Ten openers. The Wildcats are just 5-10 in league lid-lifters since 1995, which includes losses in seven of the last eight.

--Northwestern ranks sixth nationally in turnover margin. The Wildcats are plus-seven through four games, which is a marked improvement from last year when they were minus-one through four games. Not coincidentally, NU started this season 4-0 and last season 2-2. NU finished last season with a minus-four turnover margin.

SERIES HISTORY: Minnesota leads 50-30-5 (last meeting, 2009, 35-24 Minnesota)

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Northwestern leads the Big Ten in pass efficiency, but ranks 10th in rushing offense with 149.8 yards per game. Perhaps that's a clue for Minnesota as it prepares for this opener. Central Michigan tried to rush four and drop seven defenders into deep coverage last week, which slowed down QB Dan Persa slightly through the air -- but left him room to gain yards on scrambles. The Wildcats hope they've punched up their running game by adding redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy to the mix. He helped last week with 53 yards in 12 carries -- all of them in the second half. Trumpy also is a fine receiver out of the backfield, which works well in NU's spread attack.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Northwestern has mixed its normal aggressive 4-3 set with some 3-4 looks -- and the statistics show the Wildcats have been good all the way around. NU ranks much worse in yards allowed (77th nationally at 377.8 ypg) compared to points allowed (22nd nationally at 15.5 ppg), but the Wildcats are forcing three turnovers per game and producing more than seven tackles for loss per game. Senior DT Corbin Bryant anchors a stout line, while OLB Quentin Davie has forced four turnovers in the last three games.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is the best team we've played. They've got great athletes all over the place. Timmy (Brewster) has recruited outstanding...Weber has been there for 18 years. He's been there forever." -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald in the Daily Herald discussing Minnesota and its senior quarterback Adam Weber, who'll make his fourth start against NU on Saturday.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Northwestern at Minnesota, Oct. 2 -- The Wildcats head into this Big Ten opener as a slight favorite, but NU won't be fooled by that. The Wildcats well remember how Minnesota came to Evanston for last year's league opener and out-toughed them for a 35-24 win. For the most part, NU owned the line of scrimmage in its 4-0 start and needs to do the same in this one. This marks the Wildcats' first trip to TCF Bank Stadium.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Minnesota's defense did an alarmingly poor job against the run in last week's home loss to Northern Illinois. Not only did the Gophers allow big holes, they missed a million tackles when they finally tracked down NIU's Chad Spann. What does this mean to Northwestern, seeing as how Pat Fitzgerald's bunch hasn't run the ball well this year? Well, the Wildcats hope they found a tackle-breaking runner in redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy. If he and Jacob Schmidt can manage four or five yards per carry, that'll make things that much easier for Dan Persa.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

QB Dan Persa -- The redshirt junior enters his first Big Ten start as the league's most productive passer. Persa ranks third nationally in pass efficiency (186.34 rating) in large part due to his FBS-best 80.2-percent completion rate and his 8-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He also leads the Wildcats with 172 rushing yards and owns two of the team's six rushing scores.

WR Jeremy Ebert -- Ebert snagged two more touchdown passes last week against Central Michigan, which gives him a team-high 4 for the season. Ebert, who spends most of his time lining up in the slot, also paces the Wildcats in catches (17), yards (331) and yards per catch (19.5). He has shown a knack for finding the seams in zones, and Persa has proven he can fire the ball into those windows and hit Ebert in stride.

DT Corbin Bryant -- The gregarious fifth-year senior has earned Northwestern's Defensive Player of the Game award two weeks in a row. Bryant's size (6-4, 300) and athleticism (he thought he'd be a Div. I basketball player while in high school) makes him a perfect fit for Northwestern's aggressive schemes. He owns just six tackles this year, but four and a half have been for losses. That includes a nine-yard sack. He also boasts one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

ROSTER REPORT:

--Junior RB Jacob Schmidt and redshirt freshman RB Mike Trumpy are the new co-starters on Northwestern's depth chart. Last week, sophomore Arby Fields and senior Stephen Simmons were listed as the co-starters, but now they share third-string duties according to the chart.

--Starting S Jared Carpenter missed the last two games with a lower back problem and has been removed from the depth chart, but coach Pat Fitzgerald suggested he'll return to practice this week. It's too soon to know whether Carpenter or replacement Hunter Bates will get the start, though Bates led the Wildcats with 11 tackles in last week's win over Central Michigan.

--Senior Keegan Grant has taken over at right guard for junior Doug Bartels. Grant made his first start of the year Saturday against CMU. Bartels is likely to rotate in for several series.

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