The Northwestern Wildcats finally got their first win of the season when they outlasted Kansas 20-17, but that win will do little to help them when they travel to the Metrodome to take on powerful Minnesota in the Big Ten opener.
The Gophers have aspirations of winning the Big Ten and getting to the Rose Bowl this year. With the start of conference play at hand, don't expect anything less than a superior effort from the multi-talented Minnesota team.
Even if Northwestern plays an outstanding game, it would appear to be a very difficult matchup. Minnesota has the No. 3 offense in college football. The Gophers are averaging 572.3 yards per game and have shown the tendency to overpower opposing defenses. That's just what they did at Colorado State last week.
The Northwestern defense is in need of help. That unit played its best game of the young season against Kansas — the Jayhawks had just 47 rushing yards — but the first two games of the season against TCU and Arizona State were awful. The Wildcat defense got pounded in both of those games and the Minnesota offense is probably an upgrade on those two very good units.
Injuries to the defense don't help either. Sophomore starting LB Adam Kadela will be out 4 to 6 weeks with a sprained left knee. DE David Thompson (hamstring) and LB John Pickens (shoulder) are expected to return to the starting lineup, but neither is 100 percent.
"It's a concern, I'm not going to minimize it," coach Randy Walker told the Chicago Sun-Times of his team's defensive injuries.
"I feel pretty confident Thompson will be back. We think Pickens will be back. He's a two-year starter we've been without for three games. We're still going to try to be multiple with our fronts. We'll probably be in a four-man front more than a three-man front.
"Fortunately, we've had a three-man front as part of our package for two years. We also went to a two-man front some against Kansas. That's a new addition, and I think it can be effective for us in certain situations. But we still have enough to play regular, play a four-man front. We just have to be smart about how we pace the personnel."
But it will take more than playing "smart" to have a shot against Minnesota. The Wildcats need to force turnovers because the Gophers are simply too tough to stop once they start driving the football.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The offense has been solid and productive. Northwestern has gotten better-than-expected play from QB Brett Basanez and are averaging 311.0 passing yards per game. Noah Herron gives them a credible running attack. Herron is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and has gained 284 yards through the first three games. Herron and the offensive line will have to be at their best against Minnesota. The Gophers' powerful offense will light up the scoreboard unless the Northwestern offense can maintain possession and keep the Minnesota attack on the sidelines.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Gophers are one of the best offensive teams in the country and they are probably licking their chops about going up against a team that is allowing 31.7 points per game — the worst in the Big Ten. Northwestern's defense has given up nine TDs of 20 yards or more. Stopping the big play has proven to be a problem through the first three games of the year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Usually when big plays occur, it's a lot of missed assignments and little breakdowns. So we put an emphasis on cutting out those little things. It helped." — Northwestern DE Barry Cofield on how the Northwestern defense put forth a better effort against Kansas. To be competitive with Minnesota, the defense will have to take about two giant steps up the ladder.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Northwestern at Minnesota, Sept. 25 — This has the potential to be a one-sided rout. The Gophers have a brilliant running attack and are a very hungry team. Since this is the conference opener, look for Minnesota to push the hammer down and send a message to the rest of the Big Ten. Do the Wildcats have a chance? Possibly. In order to keep it close, they need to put together a great ball-control attack and force a few Minnesota turnovers.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB Noah Herron — A good back coming into the season, Herron has gotten off to a fine start by averaging 94.7 yards per game. In order for the Wildcats to stay close to Minnesota, Herron needs to impose his will on Minnesota and dominate the defense.
DE David Thompson and LB John Pickens — Both players are expected to return from hamstring and shoulder injuries, respectively. Will they be able to step up and become impact players or will the strong Minnesota offensive line neutralize them as they try to stop RBs Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney?
ROSTER REPORT: LB Adam Kadela (knee) is expected to miss 4-6 weeks. ... Thompson (hamstring) and Pickens (shoulder) should be back in the lineup, but they may not be at 100 percent. ... David Ngene (knee) is questionable for Saturday's game against Minnesota. ... Defensive back Marquise Cole (ankle) is sidelined indefinitely. ... Defensive lineman Loren Howard (ankle) is expected to miss the remainder of the season.
Next Up: Northwestern
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