Northwestern (5-5) vs. Minnesota (7-3)
Time: 2:30 P.M. CT, Saturday, November 19th
TV: BTN - Cory Provus (Play by Play) and Glen Mason (Analyst)
Last week: Northwestern beat Purdue 45-17 on the road, and Minnesota lost to Nebraska 24-17 on the road
All-time series: Minnesota 54-34-5 (Northwestern won 27-0 over Minnesota in Evanston on October of 2015)
Vegas betting line: Northwestern (-1)
Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Northwestern Publisher Zach Pereles
Five things you need to know
1. Minnesota welcomes Northwestern to TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday for a matchup with the Wildcats. The Gophers lead the all-time series 52-34-5 and is 29-14-3 at home against Northwestern. Minnesota last hosted the Wildcats in 2014 and prevailed 24-17. Northwestern tied the game with 7:32 left in the fourth quarter, but Jalen Myrick then returned the ensuing kickoff for 100 yards to lift Minnesota to the win. Last season, the Gophers were shutout on the road 27-0 by the Wildcats. The game marked the first time that Minnesota had been blanked since it lost 58-0 at Michigan in 2011.
2. The Gophers will honor 13 seniors on Saturday as they play their final home game at TCF Bank Stadium. The seniors are Eric Amoako, Hank Ekpe, Scott Ekpe, Mitch Leidner, Jack Lynn, Jalen Myrick, Jonah Pirsig, Nick Rallis, Ace Rogers, Alex Starks, Yoshoub Timms, Damarius Travis and Drew Wolitarsky. This year’s senior class (2013-16) has won 29 games (8 in 2013, 8 in 2014, 6 in 2015 and 7 in 2016), which is the most by a senior class since 2006. That class (2003-06) won 30 games (10 in 2003, 7 in 2004, 7 in 2005 and 6 in 2006). The 2005 class won 32 games, while the 2004 class also won 29 games. Prior to the 2004 class, the last class to win at least 29 games was the 1937 class (8 in 1934, 8 in 1935, 7 in 1936 and 6 in 1937)
3. Minnesota opened TCF Bank Stadium with a 20-13 win against Air Force in 2009. The Gophers are 31-24 all-time at their on-campus facility. Minnesota was 5-9 at TCF Bank Stadium after the 2010 season, but is 26-15 since. Minnesota is 23-11 at the stadium since the start 2012 season. The Gophers are 5-1 at home this year and win on Saturday would make them 6-1. Minnesota’s best season ever at TCF Bank Stadium was in 2014 when it was 6-1.
4. Minnesota started the Big Ten schedule 0-2, but then rattled off four straight wins in beating Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue. That streak ended against Nebraska. The Gophers last won four straight Big Ten games in 2013, when they beat Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State. Head coach Tracy Claeys was the acting head coach in 2013 when Minnesota won those four games, as then-head coach Jerry Kill was dealing with health issues. Prior to 2013, the last time Minnesota won four straight Big Ten games was in 1973
5. A win on Saturday would be the eighth of the season for the Gophers. Minnesota also won eight games in 2013 and 2014. The last time Minnesota won eight games three times in a four-year span was 1903-05 (14, 13 and 10 wins). The Gophers have now won at least seven games in a season 32 times in school history and 16 times since 1950. Minnesota has won at least seven games in three of the last four seasons, which is a feat it last accomplished in 2003 (10 wins), 2004 (7) and 2005 (7). Minnesota will play in its fifth straight bowl game (19th overall) this year. The streak of five consecutive bowls is tied for the longest streak in program history (2002-2006). Minnesota snapped a seven-game bowl losing streak last year witn a win in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Northwestern players to watch
1) Clayton Thorsen, quarterback: Thorson's been really good and more importantly, he's responded to early adversity on the road every week. 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.
2) Austin Carr, wide receiver: Carr is a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist and revelation at the WR position for this team. 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.
3) Anthony Walker Jr., linebacker: 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.
Keys to the game
1. Have to be able to run the ball and hit on a deep shot: It's not a revelation to say that Minnesota's offensive line has been struggling to open lanes for their running backs all season as the Gophers currently rank 114th in SBNation's Adjusted Line Yards, but they need some help from their passing game and offensive coordinator.
Teams like Nebraska last week, and likely Northwestern last week are going to stack the box constantly with seven or eight guys, and that puts this offensive line at a disadvantage as they're more times than not, in a negative situations where there's going to be unblocked men because of the numbers. That's where the passing game and offensive coordinator need to take more of their plate. If opponents are going to continuously stack the box, you need to be able to connect on play action, and push the ball out to the boundary where the defenders are not. Minnesota was 0 for 2 last week on throws of 20+ yards, both to Rashad Still, but they just went away from it in the second half and the offense suffers because of it.
There's also a lack of quick throws to the outside on whether it be hitches, bubble screen or slants, as again, with the defenders all piled into the box, it's open outside the hashes for Minnesota's pass catchers to do work in space, the issue is they haven't proven that they can do so consistently.
Northwestern has been about middle of the road against the run during Big Ten play, but they are 127th in FBS football in SBNation's Power Success Rate on defense, which are third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. Meaning that while Minnesota's struggled in those type of situations of late, Northwestern could be the cure for the Gophers ailments.
2. Limit Justin Jackson and Austin Carr as much as you can: Northwestern has three stud players on offense in quarterback Clayton Thorson, running back Justin Jackson and wide receiver Austin Carr, and all three have having damn good Big Ten seasons.
Thorsen is second during Big Ten play in passing yards a game with 266.3, has a touchdown to interception ratio of 15:6 and is competing over 60% of his passes. Year two is looking much brighter than year one. Jackson is fourth in the B1G in all-purpose yards per game (126.0) and second on the ground with 111.0 yards per game. Austin Carr is the Big Ten's leading receiver as he's averaging 8.1 receptions a game for 117 yards and has 10 receiving touchdowns in seven games. He's been fantastic and has lit up high quality opponents all season as went over 100 yards against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
We'll see how much of a factor that the weather plays on Saturday as there's a nasty front that'll be hitting today, but Minnesota's going to have to force someone besides Austin Carr to beat them in the passing game, and do what they can with their front seven to limit Justin Jackson.
3. Win on special teams: Minnesota's special teams is the fifth best in the country according to SBNation, and Northwestern ranks as the 94th best, so in a 50/50 type of game, this could give Minnesota an advantage. Northwestern is the second worst net punting team, as they average 33.3 yards per punt, and this could give Minnesota a big advantage in the field position game. Looking back at Northwestern's game against Iowa, that should have been a blowout for the Wildcats, but the Hawkeyes accounted for 254 return yards, and 115 in the punt return game specifically. KiAnte Hardin has to have a big day in the return game to flip field position, and the Gophers can't afford any mistakes in the kickoff game either.
If Minnesota can win the field position game, that's going to give them a legit shot.
Obviously have to lead with this, but is Minnesota finally going to find a way to win a game against a similarly skilled opponent? They're 0-3 this year against Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska, and every Gopher fan will tell you that Minnesota had multiple opportunities to win those games.
Finding a way to way to win comes down to the little things, so let's examine that closer.
- Minnesota is +9 in the take / give in this B1G season, while Northwestern is +3.
- Minnesota is the third most penalized team in the B1G (6 penalities a game for 54.9 yards), while Northwestern is the least penalized team (3.1 penalities a game for 22.4 yards)
Gophers are going to have to win the turnover battle, and limit their penalities if they're going to grab a victory at home.
It's also worth nothing that Minnesota has to find a second receiving weapon outside of Drew Wolitarsky. Wolitarsky has 80 targets on the season, and with Brian Smith no longer here, the next closest total is 25 targets, and that's shared by Tyler Johnson and Rashad Still. Defenses are keying in on Drew, and they obviously should, and if he's going to be double-teamed, someone else has to prove they can get open consistently.
If Minnesota can find their running game against and get Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks even a sliver of room, I believe the Gophers can grab a win on Senior Day.
The question will be though, what will Minnesota change from their three previous meetings this season against quality opponents that will lead them to victory. Here's to hoping that the Gophers play their first complete game in their final home game of the season.