So, who has the edge in this (believe it or not) battle of the one-loss Big Ten teams?
When Northwestern has the ball?
There's no doubt about it: Northwestern's offense was downright terrible against Penn State. But don't forget, a week before that the ‘Cats raced up and down the field for 704 yards against Indiana.
Now Minnesota's defense is not as bad as Indiana's – giving up 320 yards per game and just under 20 points – but look for the ‘Cats to drastically improve upon the Penn State game. Expect the ball to be in the hands of playmakers Kain Colter and Venric Mark, and expect the zone read to be run like crazy in the red zone.
Northwestern still has one of the most explosive offenses in the nation, it simply takes the correct play calling to get the ‘Cats going. NU shied away from that against PSU, but look for the ‘Cats to find their identity again this week.
When Minnesota has the ball:
The Gophers are putting up nearly 400 yards of offense – 167 of it on the ground – per game this season. The key question here is MarQueis Gray. If the Minnesota quarterback is ready to go and healthy, this offense will be strong, as Gray averages 78 yards rushing and 132 yards passing per game this season, and can make big plays, but has been battling injury.
If Gray is not 100 percent, Max Shortell is a viable solution for Minnesota, though less dynamic than Gray. Shortell has a slightly lower passer rating than Gray, but has a strong arm and can toss the ball around the field.
Either way, the Northwestern defense was exposed last week for some of the issues it was able to hide through the rest of the season, though much of that was because the unit was on the field for 2/3 of the game. If NU has more of a breather, the defense should turn out a much stronger performance, but Minnesota can still put up a lot of points.
Advantage: Minnesota (slight)
In a total transformation from previous years, NU has one of the strongest special teams advantages possible. Jeff Budzien has shown himself to be one of the most accurate kickers in the country. He is 11 for 11 on field goals this season, and has cemented himself as an extremely reliable kicker.
And in the punt return game, while Minnesota's A.J. Barker averages a solid 8.3 yards per return, that is absolutely nothing on Venric Mark. The NU star averages nearly 33 yards per return and has two scores in the return game. It's the first time NU has had a player with two punt return touchdowns since Tom Worthington in 1949 – which was the last time NU went to the Rose Bowl (coincidence? Knock on wood…)
Minnesota is coming off a bye-week, which should have the Gophers nice and rested to take on the fast-paced offense of the ‘Cats. On the other hand, Northwestern likely has a bitter taste in its mouth after the loss to Penn State, and will be out to re-prove its worth against the Gophers.
Both teams have something to prove coming off recent losses, and both teams need this game to stay alive in the division. Minnesota has the advantage of playing at home, but the ‘Cats have plenty of experience in tough environments.
Northwestern will get off to a strong start on offense and take an early lead – which will make ‘Cats fans understandably nervous. This time, however, the ‘Cats will hold their own when playing with the lead. Venric Mark will have another 100-yard performance with two scores, Kain Colter will add another couple of scores and the NU defense will force at least one turnover. Minnesota rallies a bit in the fourth quarter, but it won't be enough.
Northwestern 38, Minnesota 24