Game Preview: Minnesota at Northwestern

It's a big weekend for the Legends division with four teams still in the race for at least a piece of the title. Minnesota and Northwestern aren't among them.

The two teams are playing better, improving as the season has gone on, even though Minnesota was blown away by Wisconsin last weekend and has lost six of its last seven games. The Gophers are starting to find more of an offense, they're talking better, and they're playing stronger on both lines. However, they're just not that talented and it's going to take a few recruiting cycles to be able to beat the better Big Ten teams.

A stunning win over Iowa and a good performance against Michigan State was a good start, but closing out with a win over either Northwestern or Illinois would be a nice boost going into the offseason. At this point, the goal is to find as many playmakers as possible to build around.

Northwestern has turned its season around with a strong three-game winning streak to come within a game of going back to a bowl game. Blowing away Indiana isn't anything to get excited about, and rolling against Rice was nice, but shocking Nebraska in Lincoln was of the biggest game-changers of the conference season.

After all the good things over the last few weeks, the Cats can't blow this home game with Michigan State coming into town to close out the regular season. 6-6 still isn't a lock for a bowl game, and losing to Minnesota might end up ruining all the positives from the current streak.

Minnesota owned the series for a while, but Northwestern has won three of the last four games, with a few coming in dramatic fashion. This year's matchup should have some interesting moments if the Gophers can play like they did against Michigan State and if NU can keep up the pace set against Rice.

Why Minnesota Might Win:
The Wildcats aren't getting into the backfield. It didn't seem to matter much over the last few weeks several games against anemic passing games, and Minnesota isn't going to start bombing away, but things started to click a little bit before the Wisconsin loss with WR Da'Jon McKnight starting to step up his play and with more of a vertical game to make defenses worry. The opportunities will be there, and Minnesota has to take them against the shaky secondary.

Minnesota isn't killing itself with a slew of turnovers. It's hardly been stingy, giving away five in the last four games, but it's not likely to lose by giving the ball away. Northwestern has turned it over six times in the last two games, and if the Gophers can capitalize on any Wildcat mistakes, they should be able to keep this close.

Why Northwestern Might Win:
Bombs away. Northwestern's passing game has picked up the pace with Dan Persa finding his old groove and receiver Jeremy Ebert making big play after big play. The Wildcats took control against Nebraska with 261 yards and a long touchdown pass to Ebert, while the five touchdown passes against Indiana turned the game into an ugly blowout.

And then came last week with Persa setting a career-high with 372 yards and four scores, and Ebert catching seven passes for 208 yards and a two scores, taking the NU passing game to another level. Minnesota has some talented veterans in the secondary, but it hasn't mattered much against anyone trying to throw deep. Teams haven't rolled up huge passing yards, on Minnesota, but they've come up with effective ones.

Northwestern doesn't generate much in the way of defensive pressure, but Minnesota really struggles to get into the backfield. It was shockingly able to sack Wisconsin's Russell Wilson twice early on last week, and that was it. Wilson got time, and then went on a tear making every throw and every play. If Persa gets time, and he will, he should come up with a repeat of Wilson's 16-of-17 day.

What To Watch Out For:
MarQueis Gray has to be awesome. He was terrific against Michigan State, throwing for 295 yards and three scores and running for 171 yards, and he made play after play to help the Gophers get by Iowa. Against the Badgers, he never found the open target, wasn't effective enough scrambling, and ended up throwing for just 51 yards and running for 68.

Along with McKnight, Gray is one of the team's few weapons, and he needs to match Persa yard-for-yard while also coming up with a few back-breaking dynamic plays against a defense that held Michigan's Denard Robinson and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez in relative check.

Gray went from being a quarterback to a wide receiver to a quarterback, and Northwestern's Kain Colter is also trying to fill a variety of roles. He stepped in for an injured Persa over the first part of the season and is still the team's leading rusher, highlighted by a 109-yard, three-score day against Eastern Illinois.

With Persa back, Colter has turned into a key receiver catching 29 passes while also being used as a runner out of the backfield. The coaching staff is inventing ways to get the ball in his hands, and he's still getting a few throws here and there, too.

What Will Happen:
Gray will have a huge game. He'll run for 100 yards and should throw for over 200 yards if he gets a little bit of time. What he won't be able to do is get any pressure on Persa, who'll pick apart the Gopher secondary for 300 yards to answer every good Minnesota drive with a big scoring play. It won't be a blowout, but Northwestern will win decisively.

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