Last year's Northwestern game got off to a bad start for Minnesota as the opening kickoff was fumbled by Lamonte Edwards and Venric Mark ran for a 26 yard TD on the first play. Despite that and the fact that the Gophers trailed 21-10 at the half, they likely should have won the game. The Gophers had the ball in Wildcat territory twice in the 4th quarter and came up short both times and ended up falling to the Wildcats 21-13. While Northwestern will open the season ranked #22, the Gophers and the Wildcats always seem to have close games and this year will likely be the same.
The Wildcat Offense:
Pat Fitzgerald has something very unique going on in Evanston with his two QB system. The main man at QB for the Wildcats is Kain Colter who has played at QB, RB, and at WR. Colter is insanely athletic, but when he is on the field the Wildcats tend to run the ball or run a horizontal passing game. When the Wildcat's other QB, Trevor Siemian, is on the field its generally an indication that they will be passing. Regardless of who's at QB, Northwestern is more of a running team as they finished 110th in passing offense while finishing 19th in rushing offense last season. While Kain Colter is a large part of that rushing offense, the main guy toting the rock for the Wildcats will be former slot receiver Venric Mark. Mark is very elusive and quite speedy as he was 1st team All America as a Punt Returner and 2nd Team All Big Ten as a Running Back. Mark rushed for over 1,000 yards last year and likely will again this year barring an injury. The Wildcats also have a solid backup in Mike Trumpy. While Venric Mark's former position isn't necessarily a strength for the Wildcat's, WR is not a position of weakness. The Wildcat's have good size outside as none of the projected starters are under 6'. Up front, the Wildcats are small by Big Ten standards as they've put an emphasis on athleticism over size. It obviously worked for them last year as they rushed for 225 yards per game. This year they must replace three starters and a key backup up front, but they should be solid once again.
The Wildcat Defense:
The Wildcats are relatively small up front on defense as well, but again despite the lack of size they were good in the run game. The Wildcats allowed just 127 yards per game on the ground, which was good for 22nd in the country. While they must replace two starters this year they will be good against the run again, but it will be interesting to see how they can hold up against some of the bigger offensive lines in the conference, including Minnesota's. Another key reason the Wildcat's were so good against the run last year was their linebackers. Like the defensive line they should be solid again this year as they only lose one starter and have two key guys back. Again like the offense, the Wildcat's were not great in the passing game finishing 86th in passing defense by allowing 250 yards per game. They will likely struggle again this year as they lose both starting corners as well as a starting safety.
3 Keys to the Game:
1. Special Teams. If Lamonte Edwards hadn't botched the opening kickoff from last year's game it likely would have been a very different game.
2. Limit Venric Mark. Not only is Venric Mark a huge weapon for the Wildcats on Special Teams, but he also torched the Gophers for 182 yards and two touchdowns at 9 yards per carry last year. The Gopher's did a great job of containing the Wildcat's other than Mark but he ran wild and was a huge reason the Gophers lost.
3. Finish Drives. The Gophers had two opportunities late in the game to make it either a one possession game or potentially take the lead if they had scored on both. If the Gophers are able to finish drives they may be able to pull out a win in Evanston.
This is a tough one to predict because the underdog in this matchup always seems to make it a game and Evanston is far from an intimidating road environment. Despite that, I think Northwestern's offensive firepower will be too much for the Gophers and the Wildcats will pull out a win in a fairly close game. Wildcats 27 Gophers 21
Brice Marich also contributed to this report