Inside Slant: Minnesota vs. Northwestern

One of coach Jerry Kill's goals when he took over the program was to have the Gophers play meaningful games. Kill and Minnesota's fans will get their wish Saturday when Northwestern visits TCF Bank Stadium for a crucial Big Ten contest.

After winning their first four games for the first time since 2008, the Gophers were full of confidence when they traveled to Iowa. That confidence took an immediate hit when Minnesota was dominated in the first half and trailed 24-0 on its way to a 31-13 loss. The Gophers were outplayed in all phases of the game by a team that was coming off a loss to Central Michigan from the Mid-American Conference.

A win following the bye week would even the Gophers' conference record and also move them one step closer to being bowl eligible. A loss would keep Minnesota winless in the league going into a tough stretch that will feature games against Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan. A second straight loss would also put a dent in the positive vibes that came with winning the first four games.

Kill hoped quarterback MarQueis Gray would return for Minnesota's homecoming game, but that seems questionable at best. Gray sustained a sprained left ankle against Western Michigan on Sept. 15. It was estimated he would miss two to four weeks, but it appears that timetable was optimistic. Sophomore Max Shortell will make his third straight start if Gray can't play.

Shortell threw three interceptions against Iowa, but Kill didn't put all the blame on his quarterback, who was making his third career start.

"We've got to make some plays, but I don't think we tell him anything differently," Kill said in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. "I think we've got to do a better job of route running and catching the football."

Shortell threw three touchdown passes after Gray left the Western Michigan game and led the Gophers to a 17-10 win over Syracuse.

"I think Max has been put in a tough situation," Kill said in the Pioneer-Press. "We wouldn't be 4-1 without his performance. He played good in the Western Michigan game. He had a good, solid game against Syracuse. In the Iowa game, we just didn't do a good job of executing."

The defense could get a lift against Northwestern. Junior safety Brock Vereen is close to 100 percent after being limited to playing in only nickel packages against Iowa. Vereen has recorded 14 tackles with one interception. Junior cornerback Martez Shabazz, who missed the last three games with a dislocated toe, also returned to practice during the bye week. He has one interception.

Minnesota holds a 33:09 to 26:51 edge in time of possession through five games. Converting third downs is a big reason. The Gophers are 42 percent in that category while holding opponents to 36 percent.

Running back Donnell Kirkwood (394) and quarterback MarQueis Gray (234) have combined for 628 of Minnesota's 837 net rushing yards in five games. Max Shortell, who took over at quarterback when Gray was injured, is third with 61 yards.

SERIES HISTORY: Minnesota leads Northwestern 50-32-5 (last meeting, 2011, 28-13 Northwestern)

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: It appears sophomore quarterback Max Shortell will be running the show against Northwestern. Perhaps a week off will help him regroup from his three-interception performance against Iowa. Shortell looked sharp when he threw for three touchdowns after MarQueis Gray was injured in the Western Michigan game. He had a mistake-free performance against Syracuse. Playing at home should help Shortell. It would also help if the Gophers can run the ball, something that didn't happen against Iowa.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Coach Jerry Kill isn't happy with his defense. And that isn't good news for his defense, which surely felt the wrath of their fiery coach during the bye week. After playing well for the first four weeks, the defense took a major step back against Iowa. Minnesota allowed 24 points and 328 yards of total offense in the first half alone. Kill is particularly displeased with the secondary, which he thought had too many missed tackles and blown assignments. The Gophers allowed two pass plays longer than 40 yards in the first half.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We didn't play as well at safety as we had been playing. We had bad eyes on a couple things on play-action pass. Our whole group, we lost some focus there for 11 or 12 plays, which really hurt us." Minnesota coach Jerry Kill in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, on the defense's performance in the Gophers' 31-13 loss to Iowa.

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Northwestern at Minnesota, Oct. 13 The Gophers had a bye week to bounce back from getting blown out against Iowa. The down time could help some injured players get back on the field, particularly on defense. It appears the Gophers will be without quarterback MarQueis Gray for the third straight game. Northwestern couldn't hold a late lead against Penn State last week in its first loss of the season.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Quarterback Max Shortell must avoid the mistakes he made against Iowa when he was picked off three times, including one that was returned for a touchdown. The running game must produce to take some pressure off Shortell. The defense, which had its worst game of the season two weeks ago, must bounce back against Northwestern's high-powered offense.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

WR A.J. Barker leads the team with 19 receptions and touchdown catches with four. He's also averaging a team-high 88 yards in all-purpose yards.

K Jordan Wettstein won the job from Chris Hawthrone in fall camp, but has struggled since. Wettstein is only four of nine on field goal attempts and coach Jerry Kill had Hawthorne warming up during the Syracuse game, but decided not to make a change. It will be interesting to see how much longer Wettstein holds on to the job if he continues to struggle.

S Derrick Wells has been the Gophers' best defensive player. He leads the team with 36 tackles, including 29 solo stops. Wells also leads the team with two interceptions and has broken up seven passes.

ROSTER REPORT

QB MarQueis Gray sprained his left ankle against Western Michigan and has missed the last two games. It's uncertain when he will return.

WR Marcus Jones sustained a hip pointer against Syracuse and didn't play against Iowa. He missed the final five games last season because of a torn ACL.

RB Devon Wright sustained a shoulder injury against Iowa.

G Tommy Olson missed the Iowa game with an ankle injury.

C Zach Mottla didn't play against Iowa because of an ankle injury.

DT Cameron Botticelli injured his elbow in the Iowa game.

WR Jamel Harbison tore the ACL in his right knee against UNLV and is out for the season.

Now Playing
Abojei decides that Minnesota is home
1:46
Wilson needs to think after MN visit
1:44
UAA: Minnesota after 2017 Isaiah Washington
Jordan Brand: Minnesota signee Amir Coffey
12:41
Gopher Spring Game 4/9: Tracy Claeys

Gopher Digest Top Stories