Coming off a win at Penn State, and one game away from a showdown with Big Ten beast Michigan at the Metrodome, the undefeated Gophers football team might logically be tempted to look past Saturday's game at Northwestern.
But not if Glen Mason has anything to say about it.
The Gophers coach said this week that he considers this week's tilt with the 2-3 Wildcats a dangerous game, and that his players can't afford to show up with anything less than their "A" game.
"I'll state this as clear as I can," Mason said. "If they're not spending all of their athletic time thinking about Northwestern, two things: they are making a big mistake and they're fools. Because film doesn't lie. And (Northwestern coach) Randy Walker keeps saying it -- they're not far away."
And this isn't just another case of a football coach trying to motivate his team while building up the next opponent. After all, we've already seen the master at that tactic in these parts -- one L. Holtz, circa 1985 -- and Mason's words ring true.
"I can't tell you enough how impressed I am of Northwestern's football team," Mason said. "Don't be fooled by the record. I know I'm not going to be. One of the first things I'm going to do with our players today is have them look at Northwestern's film because they are very impressive.
"As we know all too well, their offense is always very tough to handle. I'm not sure that we've ever handled them, and it's the same thing this year. Their defense is much, much, much improved. Statistically, it proves that, and you watch them on the film and you can see it."
Mason knows all too well his team's recent history against Northwestern. The Gophers are 2-2 vs. Northwestern under Mason, with a win and a loss at each site. Northwestern's teams under Walker have baffled the Gophers with a no-huddle offense that has sent scoreboards spinning out of control.
Last year, for example, Minnesota raced out to a 45-21 lead at the Metrodome before holding off a furious fourth-quarter rally for a 45-42 victory. Two years earlier, the Gophers couldn't hold off a similar rally and blew a 35-14 lead, losing 41-35 on a Hail Mary touchdown pass on the last play of the game. And in their last game at NU, the Gophers lost 23-17 in 2001.
This year, the Wildcats are averaging 22.8 points per game, but were shutout last week at No. 3 Ohio State. Walker said in a recent mailbag on the Northwestern web site that the Wildcats might break out the no-huddle offense and throw a few long bombs this week against the Gophers after not doing much of either so far this year.
The Northwestern offense is led this year by senior running back Jason Wright (5-10, 215), who has rushed for 528 yards and eight touchdowns in five games. Last year, Wright burned the Gophers for 148 yards and a pair of scores, and Mason knows his defense will have its hands full with Wright again this year.
"He's a very underrated back in this league," Mason said. "He's got great vision when they run that inside zone, especially out of the shotgun formation. And if you're out of position, he finds it."
At quarterback, 6-2 sophomore Brett Basanez returns after posting decent numbers against the Gophers in last year's game (21-for-35, 216 yards, one TD, no INT). He's completing 53.2 percent of his passes this year but has only one touchdown pass and is averaging 164 passing yards per game. Basanez has split time with freshman Alex Webb in two games this year and Webb could also see duty against the Gophers.
Mason lauded the Northwestern defense as the surprise strength of the team thus far. "If you ask me where most of their improvement has been, I'd have to say defense. Really, a year ago they gave up a ton of yards versus the rush, they're not doing that. I think they held Ohio State to 125 yards … rushing. And they've been very, very stingy versus the rush and we like to run the football, so it's a good matchup."
Saturday's game will be televised live at 11 a.m. on ESPN2.
Mason talks about NU
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