GopherDigest's Ryan Burns previews the Gophers Big Ten opener against Northwestern

GopherDigest's Ryan Burns previews the Gophers Big Ten opener against Northwestern

Minnesota (3-1) vs. Northwestern (4-0)

Time: 11:00 A.M CT, Saturday, October 3rd

TV: BTN - Scott Graham (play-by-play), Glen Mason (Analyst) and J Leman (Sideline) 

Last week: Minnesota defeated Ohio 27-24; Northwestern beat Ball State 24-19

All-time series: Gophers lead the series 52-33-5 (24-17 Minnesota in Minneapolis, October 2014)

Vegas betting line: Northwestern (-6.5)

Depth Chart

Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Northwestern beat writer Alex Putterman

Five things you need to know

1) Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Northwestern on Saturday. The Gophers lead the all-time series 52-33-5 and have won the last two meetings between the teams (24-17 in Minneapolis last season and 20-17 in Evanston in 2013). The last time that Minnesota won three straight games in the series was from 2002-04 when it won 45-42 in 2002 at home, 42- 17 in 2003 on the road and 43-17 at home in 2004. The Gophers last won two straight games at Ryan Field in 1989 and 1993. Minnesota topped the Wildcats 20-18 in 1989 and won 28-26 in its next visit to Evanston in 1993. Minnesota has nine separate three-game (or more) winning streaks in its history against Northwestern. The Gophers longest winning streak against the Wildcats is seven games and spanned from 1975-81. Saturday’s game also marks the second straight season that Minnesota will open Big Ten play on the road, as it won at Michigan 30-14 last season on Sept. 27.

2) Northwestern enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 16 in the AP poll. The Wildcats will be the second ranked team that Minnesota will play this season, as the Gophers opened the season hosting No. 2 TCU. Dating back to last season - and including Saturday’s game against Northwestern - Minnesota will play six of nine games against ranked teams. The Gophers ended last year with four straight games against ranked foes in No. 8 Ohio State, No. 21 Nebraska, No. 14 Wisconsin and No. 16 Missouri. The last time Minnesota faced six ranked teams in a shorter span dates back to the 1990 and 1991 seasons. The Gophers ended 1990 with three straight games against No. 24 Michigan State, No. 16 Michigan and No. 13 Iowa. They started 1991 against San Jose State and then played ranked opponents in No. 19 Colorado, No. 18 Pittsburgh and No. 22 Illinois. Minnesota’s win against a ranked team on the road was 28-24 at Nebraska last season.

3) Minnesota closed out its non-conference schedule with a 27-24 win against Ohio last Saturday. The Gophers went 3- 1 in non-conference play with their lone loss being a 23-17 setback to No. 2 TCU to start the season. Minnesota is now 15-5 in non-conference games in coach Jerry Kill’s five seasons. In addition to finishing non-conference play, Minnesota also played its last game in September for the season. They finished the month with a 3-1 mark and are now 13-7 in September games under Kill. The Gophers are 6-7 all-time under Kill in October games, but are 4-2 in their last six.

4) Minnesota is 9-5 in its last 14 Big Ten games, which is the fourth best mark in the league during that span. Ohio State in 14-0, Michigan State is 13-1 and Wisconsin is 12-2 (doesn’t include B1G title games). If Minnesota beats Northwestern and improves to 10-5 it would be the school’s best 15-game league stretch since it went 10-5 from 11/11/72 to 10/26/74 (beat Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa twice and Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois once, while losing twice to Ohio State and Michigan and to Indiana once).

5) The Gophers accumulated 468 yards (204 rushing and 264 passing) of total offense against Ohio. Five freshmen - Rodney Smith (94 rushing, 58 receiving), Shannon Brooks (82 rushing), Isaiah Gentry (36 receiving), Rashad Still (24 receiving) and Melvin Holland (3 receiving) - were responsible for 297 of those yards (63%). On the season, freshmen are responsible for 42% of the team’s total offense (631 of 1510).

Northwestern players to watch

1) Justin Jackson, running back:  On the watch list for the Maxwell Award, given annually to the nation's top college player, a candidate for the Doak Walker Award, presented annually to the nation's top collegiate running back. Averaging almost 30 carries a game for 125 yards, so he'll definitely be a work horse back tomorrow.

2) Anthony Walker, linebacker: Averaging over 10 tackles a game with almost 8 tackles for loss thus far, so Minnesota is going to have to account where he is on the field at all times. 

3) Clayton Thorsen, quarterback: Northwestern's starting quarterback has been a little off the last two games as he's averaging only 50% completion percentage with three interceptions, so this Gopher defense will have opportunities to flip the script.

Keys to the game

1. Quick start: Same as last week. If the Gophers can start fast, which has been a definite point of emphasis for offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover this season, Minnesota could start to turn momentum on the road and get the Wildcats doubting themselves at home. Getting quarterback Mitch Leidner into a rhythm early in the short to intermediate game is key, as well as getting stud freshmen running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks going on the ground. If Minnesota can get out to a 10-0 or by the end of the first quarter, they should be in a good position, in what I expect to be a defensive battle.

2. Big plays: Minnesota has one play over 40 yards this season, and I think that'll have to change if Minnesota is going to pull off the upset on the road. It'll have to be a long run from Rodney Smith or Shannon Brooks, or that Leidner and his receivers get on the same page for a play action deep ball for a score. The defense has done a great job as well containing big plays and they didn't allow a play over 50 yards through the Gophers first two games.

3. Converting in the red zone: This may be the biggest key of all and the one that matters most to me besides a victory on Saturday. Northwestern has allowed one touchdown on their opponents last 10 red zone trips, so if Minnesota is going to the win the game, they're going to have to get seven points, not three.

Prediction

Northwestern 17, Minnesota 14


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