Before each Minnesota football game, GopherIllustrated will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Northwestern publisher Zach Pereles of the InsideNU.com (Evanston, Illinois) to preview the Gophers' Week 12 home game against the Northwestern Wildcats.
1) Northwestern has been playing a lot better brand of football since the Big Ten season started, what do you attribute that to, and where are the Wildcats at mentally coming into the game this weekend?
ZP: The play in the trenches on both sides of the ball have been much improved. Offensively, Pat Fitzgerald said as much: The team goes as far as its front five goes. When the Wildcats establish the run early, they are very difficult to stop. Defensively, when they can stop the run with just the defensive line, it really helps a young cornerback tandem. Mentally, this team seems to be very solid. It responded from a 1-3 start to get back to .500 and should be very motivated against a Minnesota team that usually provides a challenge, especially in Minneapolis. The Wildcats aren't yet bowl eligible, so that's a huge motivation, too.
2) Sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorsen is second in the Big Ten during conference play averaging 266.3 yards per game through the air, plus he has a touchdown to interception ratio of 15:6. How good has Thorsen been, and what's been a couple of the biggest reasons for his development from year one to year two?
ZP: Thorson's been really good and more importantly, he's responded to early adversity on the road every week. Northwestern's had to make a comeback in all of its road games, including a 14-0 deficit at Michigan State (54-40 win) and 10-0 deficits at Ohio State (24-20 loss) and Purdue (45-17 win). He's been pretty consistent over the past month and a half after a poor opening month, and he really seems to be progressing into one of the better QBs in the Big Ten. One reason for his development is Austin Carr, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist and revelation at the WR position for this team. But Thorson is also much more confident and smarter with the ball. His progress has been fantastic. Fitzgerald compared it to a freshman taking exams (last year) to a sophomore taking them (this year). He's just better at it and knows how to prepare better each week.
3) It's been no secret to the rest of the Big Ten that Justin Jackson is one of the top running backs in the conference. How has his season been of late, and who are a couple of other names on this Wildcat offense to look out for on Saturday afternoon?
ZP: Jackson's been a little banged up, and that allowed John Moten to get a big workload against the hapless Boilermakers. The duo combined for nearly 250 yards on the ground. Jackson's been very good and reliable as always (1,000 yards for three straight years), playing through some considerable pain, and when he gets going, this offense is very difficult to stop. He's exceptionally quick side-to-side, and he's also developed considerably in pass protection.
Outside of Jackson, it'll be important to pay attention to Carr. He runs outstanding routes and has amazing hands — I can remember only one drop this year, and the throw was way behind him, making it a much more difficult attempt than it should have been. Superback Garrett Dickerson is essentially a sixth lineman at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds of pure muscle, but he's also getting involved in the passing game as of late.
4) On defense, Northwestern defenders Anthony Walker Jr. and Ifeadi Odenigbo are playing well thus far, how would you asses their play, and who are some other names to lookout on defense?
ZP: Walker Jr. came into the season with massive expectations after an All-American season last year, but he was hampered with injuries early. He's rounded into shape and is looking more and more like his old self every week. Odenigbo had an awful first four games then went on a tear collecting 7 sacks in three games, but he's been quiet the last few weeks. He'll be used situationally on passing downs. Look for Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson in the middle, Joe Gaziano and Xavier Washington off the edge, and Montre Hartage (3 interceptions) and Godwin Igwebuike (team-leading 87 tackles) in the secondary.
5) What are the keys for Northwestern if they're going to beat Minnesota on the road this weekend, and what's your score prediction for the Wildcats vs. Gophers game, and why?
ZP: The Wildcats have to establish the run and then use play action off of it. Thorson and this passing attack can be very, very good, but it needs some semblance of balance for it to work. Defensively, the Wildcats need to limit big plays and force turnovers. Of their four Big Ten wins, all them have featured forcing at least one turnover.
I'm taking the Wildcats with a 27-17 scoreline.
Mitch Leidner throws a pair of interceptions, and Austin Carr continues his tear through the Big Ten hoping to nab a spot in the Biletnikoff Award finalists circle.