The Minnesota offense has increased dramatically as the year has progressed, as quarterback MarQueis Gray has finally found a way to command the offense.
The unit is still not overly impressive, but it has moved the ball efficiently at times against solid defenses, particularly Michigan State. Gray and company got rolling toward the end of the game against Iowa, as well, and pulled out an upset win.
Gray is a dual-threat quarterback, leading the team in rushing with 639 yards. He also has a solid weapon in the passing game in senior receiver Da'Jon McKnight. McKnight's numbers are a little underwhelming—662 yards and four touchdowns—but that is mainly due to Gray's limited passing ability.
Because Gray is a fairly weak passer, this will be a good matchup for a Northwestern offense that has done a good job stopping mobile quarterbacks.
The secondary should have an easy day, although it must continue to not give up big plays, as Minnesota's passing game lives off deep throws. If the linebackers and defensive line can contain Gray and force him to throw, the NU defense should have a good day.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Northwestern didn't put up a lot of points against Rice, but that was mainly due to the offense taking its foot off the gas.
The running game was lacking and Kain Colter was relatively quiet, but that's because neither was needed. Expect Colter to be a big part of the offense against Minnesota
The Gophers' defense is terrible, ranking No. 105 in the country in scoring defense, and while it showed improvement against Iowa and Michigan State, it regressed in a 42-13 blowout against Wisconsin.
The Wildcats shouldn't have any problem moving the ball against this weak defense.
Northwestern's special teams were surprisingly solid against Rice. The biggest improvements came in the punting game, as Brandon Williams pinned the Owls deep, something he has rarely done all year.
There is still inconsistency in the kicking game, but the Cats haven't needed to rely on Jeff Budzien to kick a field goal in the clutch.
The good news for NU is that Minnesota is also dealing with inconsistency in the kicking game. Jordan Wettstein took over for Chris Hawthorne three weeks ago and has just two kicks—he made both—under his belt.
Despite their kicking woes, the Gophers have one of the best kick return units in the Big Ten, as Marcus Jones and Duane Bennett have both returned kicks for touchdowns. Bennett is averaging 31.2 yards per return, while Jones is averaging 28.5 yards per return.
Bennett and Jones are game-changers on special teams and NU lacks a returner of their caliber.
Many fans were down on Pat Fitzgerald and his coaching staff at the beginning of the season—and rightfully so—as the defense seemed to be lost on the field.
However, the Cats are now riding a three-game winning streak and the defense has seen a huge turnaround in that time. The coaches did an outstanding job game planning for the Nebraska game, limiting big plays and stifling the run game.
NU will need that formula against Minnesota in order to win.
For the Gophers, Jerry Kill hasn't seen great results in his first year as the head coach, but he'll need a few years to work in his system. Even though his team is one of the worst in college football, he has done a great job motivating them late in the season, especially in the win against Iowa and the near upset of Michigan State.
The Minnesota coaches seem to be on the right track, but NU has more to work with right now and that puts its coaches in better, non-desperate positions.
It's hard to see NU overlooking Minnesota, needing a win to become bowl-eligible and facing No. 15 Michigan State next Saturday.
The Cats are on a hot streak and can win their fourth straight on Saturday. The players are motivated to reach a bowl game and have found the confidence they were lacking in the early part of the season.
Minnesota isn't playing for anything at this point except for pride, and while the Gophers are definitely still motivated to play and end the season strong, the Wildcats are at home and needs this win much more than the Gophers.
Northwestern got off to a slow start against Rice, but expect the Cats to jump out to an early lead, playing with a lot of energy because of what is on the line.
Persa will have a good day passing and Ebert will put together yet another big day receiving. Also expect Colter to jump back into the mix and contribute as both a quarterback and a wide receiver.
The Cats defense should be able to contain Gray and the improved secondary won't allow McKnight to get over the top.
Don't expect much late-game drama in this one, as NU rolls to its fourth straight win and bowl eligibility.
Score: Northwestern 34, Minnesota 13