Before each Minnesota football game, GopherDigest will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Northwestern beat writer Alex Putterman of The Daily (Evanston, Illinois) to preview the Gophers' Week 5 home game against the 4-0 Northwestern Wildcats.
1) Northwestern is undefeated to start the 2015 season with a 4-0 record that includes an impressive home win over Stanford and win at Duke. How big of a surprise is it with this start to the season and what have you learned about this team through four games?
AP: I think everyone here was caught off guard by the Stanford — no one really expected Northwestern to win that one. Even then we all pretty much assumed that was a fluke and were therefore pleasantly surprised when NU dominated Eastern Illinois and beat Duke in Durham. Last week's win against Ball State was underwhelming, but any NU fan will happily take 4-0 with three awesome performances from a team most expected to win only six or seven games.
What we've learned is that the Wildcats' defense is better than anyone could have imagined. We knew that would be a strong unit, but their performance through the first three games (allowing only one touchdown, on a very short field) blew away all expectations.
2) How has the offense looked under redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson? What have you thought of his play through the non-conference schedule?
AP: Thorson is a freshman, and he's played like a freshman. The talent is obvious, but the game is clearly moving very fast for him. He's committed five turnovers in the last two weeks, and that is certainly not acceptable. When Thorson is comfortable — such as in the third quarter against Ball State — NU can move the ball, but fans kind of hold their breath whenever the ball is in the air.
3) RB Justin Jackson is averaging almost 30 carries a game through four games, how's his play been and is Northwestern expected to give him that many carries a week going forward?
AP: Justin Jackson is a stud, and NU's offense is best when the ball is in his hands, but his workload is unsustainable. He's currently leading the country in carriers, which doesn't make much sense given that NU has two other playable backs in Solomon Vault and Warren Long. The problem is, the time for resting Jackson has passed. With Big Ten play starting, the Wildcats will need him as much as possible, especially with Thorson struggling. Jackson shouldn't be carrying 30 times a game — no college back should — but NU might not win tough conference games if he doesn't.
4) What are the strengths of the Northwestern defense and who are a few names to keep an eye on for the game this Saturday?
AP: Northwestern's defense does a great job of pressuring the quarterback and also locks down in coverage. But even though the defensive line and secondary are the team's best position groups, the guy to watch is middle linebacker Anthony Walker, a sophomore tackling machine who has already won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week twice this season. In NU's wins over Stanford and Duke, Walker seemed to be everywhere, or at least wherever the ball was. Against the Blue Devils he had 19 tackles. Defensive end Dean Lowry and cornerback Nick VanHoose are also defensive players worth keeping an eye on.
5a) I know seven Wildcat players left the game last Saturday with injury, which are expected to play and who are expected to potentially miss the Big Ten opener?
AP: Of the seven players who left the game, three (C.J. Robbins, Garrett Dickerson and Deonte Gibson) re-entered later, so they should be good to go Saturday. Backup safety Kyle Queiro has a broke arm, which should shelve him for a while. Pat Fitzgerald and company play injuries pretty close to the vest, so we don't know a lot about the other three injured players, all of whom are important to the team. It sounds like guard Geoff Mogus will be out, which really hurts the offensive line, but we'll have to wait and see with Godwin Igwebuike and Ifeadi Odenigbo.
5b) What are the keys for the Wildcats if they're going to beat the Gophers and what's your prediction for the Minnesota vs. Northwestern game and why?
AP: The biggest key for Northwestern will be holding onto the ball. I'm confident in the defense's ability to shut down Mitch Leidner and the Gophers' offense, but the D can only do so much when the offense is turning the ball over in its own territory. I think if Thorson can avoid the mistakes he's made the past two weeks NU can win this one pretty comfortably. Looking at the two team's resumes so far this season, it's hard not to view the Wildcats as the superior team.
Prediction: 20-13, Northwestern.