Gabbing with Gophers

Purple Reign invited in a pair of Gopher insiders to help break down Saturday's matchup between Northwestern and Minnesota. With these teams' history of wild games, Purple Reign ran the three-man weave with two Minnesota Daily sports writers who joined PR to banter about Minnesota, give their thoughts on the game and of course offer up some predictions.

Purple Reign is pleased to welcome in Austin Cumblad and Marco LaNave, a pair of sports writers for the Minnesota Daily, UM's student newspaper. LaNave and Cumblad were enlisted to help break down this weekend's game. So, let's have at it...

Purple Reign: Last season's Northwestern-Minnesota game was pretty nuts. NU led 10-0, then UM scored 14 straight and took the lead on a pick-six, then NU took a 17-14 lead, then UM tied it up – all in the first half.

And then, after no one scored for the first 29:48 of the second half, overtime was in the cards.

Until, of course, the Wildcats' Brendan Smith picked off a pass in the waning seconds and took a circuitous, dodging-and-weaving route to the end zone. He crossed the goal line with 12 seconds left. And for as weird and wild as the game was, there was no Hail Mary in the cards. NU won 24-17.

That game, though, was even stranger than the last-second-INT-for-score finish. The box score was chock full of anomalies.

Things about that game that could warrant their own X-Files episode:

Cats QB Mike Kafka – in his first start in two years – set a Big Ten quarterback rushing record. He finished with 217 yards on 27 carries.

Kafka, who accounted for 360 of NU's 363 yards, finished 12-of-16 passing. But two of his four misfires were intercepted…by the same player…and one of them was returned for a TD.

Other than Kafka, NU's backs netted three yards on 14 carries. Good for an average of – crap, my calculator just broke.

The No. 17 Gophers lost:

* Even though they had more yards
* Even though QB Adam Weber was 31-of-51 for 327 yards (to Kafka's 143 yards)
* Even though NU got three yards rushing out of its non-quarterbacks
* Even though Minnesota was a solid eight-of-18 on third downs (and NU was a season-worst two-for-10)
* Even though the Gophers had the ball for nearly seven more minutes than the Cats
* Even though Goldy Gopher was caught on camera beating up Willie Wildcat (OK, I made that last one up.)*

* For as bonkers as the 2008 game was, 2007 may have been even nuttier. NU won 49-48 in double-overtime in Evanston, rallying from a 35-14 deficit and stopping a would-be game-winning two-point conversion to seal the win. C.J. Bacher had a ridiculous game: 41-of-58 for 470 yards and four touchdowns. The week before, he had set the school record for passing yards by throwing for 520 in another overtime win, that one against Michigan State.

To properly delve into this weekend's game in Evanston, let's turn it over to Cumblad and LaNave. Both of them have been covering the Gophers the past couple years, so they'll be able to shed some light on UM.

OK, Austin and Marc. Let's get your thoughts on this one. Northwestern and Minnesota have identical 2-1 records, but truth be told, the Gophers' season has been more impressive. They went to Syracuse and won – something NU failed to do last week – and hung tough with Top 10 Cal. Even their lone cupcake thus far, Air Force, wasn't a total pushover.

The Cats, meanwhile, bullied a truly rubbish Towson team, eked by Eastern Michigan, and lost to Syracuse.

What are you watching out for in this game? You think Minnesota will have Kafka locked down a little bit better? That loss last year came in I-can't-believe-it fashion, and it sent the Gophers on their way to five straight losses to close the season. You think revenge is a factor?

Basically, what are you going to keep an eye on?

Austin Cumblad: I'll have my eye on plenty of things, not least of which will be that man Kafka you have running around out there. What he did last year was remarkable and I have a feeling surprised even Wildcats fans.

This time around, I have to think the Gophers will be more prepared. Minnesota's defense is built around a solid group of linebackers. Lee Campbell and Nate Triplett won back-to-back Big Ten defensive player of the week awards to start out the season, so now it seems like Simoni Lawrence's turn. I suspect he'll be able to use his considerable speed to corral Kafka.

What worries me instead is that Kafka seems to be coming into his own as a passer this year. Fortunately, it looks like the Gophers will have Marcus Sherels, their best pure cover corner, back on the field after missing the past couple weeks with an ankle injury. To have him across from Traye Simmons again will be a major boost.

Still, I'll have my eye on Minnesota's offense a lot more than I will on the defense. Here's what I'm curious about: can the run game (ranked 109th in the country) move the ball? Can Adam Weber have success throwing to other targets than Eric Decker? And can we please see more MarQueis Gray? It's hard to talk much about the offense because there are so many questions surrounding it.

I will say that the answers to most of the questions hinge on the play of the offensive line. Watch them closely; if they're creating holes and giving Weber time, the offense could have a big day. If not – well, then Kafka will have plenty of time with the ball to put together another record-setting day.

Now the question of revenge. Smith's interception and return was one of the more fluky plays I've seen in college football, not the return as much as the fact that a Biletnikoff Award finalist dropped a pass that hit him right in the hands. I can't think of another instance in which Decker has done that (probably because there isn't one).

So my thought is that the goal for the Gophers – and Decker especially – will be redemption, not revenge. And I don't think I need to tell you that a player of his caliber on a mission like that is a frightening prospect. Weber's tendency to only have eyes for Decker may actually work to Minnesota's benefit on Saturday.

Marco LaNave:Although revenge is not the overriding theme, I think it is certainly at play for several of the veteran players who watched a 7-1 start crumble after the loss to the Wildcats in the final homecoming game at the Metrodome. It was the start of a five-game losing streak that nearly wiped out the energy of such an improvement from a 1-11 campaign in 2007.

Personally, I would be surprised if Kafka runs all over the Gophers for a second consecutive year. For one thing, they have the film to break down from last year. For another, under new co-defensive coordinators Kevin Cosgrove (formerly the D-coordinator at Wisconsin and Nebraska) and Ronnie Lee (who has coached defensive backs at six different schools prior to Minnesota), the Gophers defense has been solid in its game preparation and halftime adjustments.

Minnesota pitched a post-halftime shutout of Syracuse after the Orange ran up 20 points in the first two quarters. The defense prepared well in Week 2 for Air Force's triple-option offense, "limiting" the Falcons to 216 rushing yards (4.0 yards per carry), one week after their 400-yard ground game. Then the Gophers didn't allow California a first down on its first three drives of the second half last Saturday, and Cal running back Jahvid Best managed just 17 yards on 13 second-half carries (granted, two of them were touchdowns) after running for 114 yards on the same number of carries in the first half.

This year's defense does a much better job of adjusting – something that was lacking last year when Kafka ran for 97 yards in the first half, and then 120 more in the second.

While Kafka might not be able to gash the Gophers on the ground, I'll be curious to see how Minnesota's defense handles the pass. They haven't really been tested through the air yet this season. California was a Best-centered offense that was able to use play-action to move the ball against the Gophers when they needed to, despite seeing decent pressure from the front of the Minnesota defense.

Air Force made no secret about the fact that it didn't pass and didn't plan to try much. If you subtract a 37-yard touchdown pass, the Falcons were 9-16 for 88 yards through the air on Sept. 12, so the Falcons didn't pass much.

And Greg Paulus, the Syracuse quarterback who hadn't thrown an official pass in nearly five years until the season opener, looked legitimate against the Gophers, going 12-17 for 128 yards and a score in the first half, before finishing 19-31 for 167 and a pick.

So the pass defense will be something to keep an eye on.

Purple Reign: I agree with you guys about Kafka not being able to replicate last year's outburst. Record-setting performances are a rarity – after all, he's not Usain Bolt – and like Austin said, the Gophers will have tape on him. Last year's UM game was Kafka's first start since his wince-inducing 2006 freshman campaign, so maybe the Gophers were caught a big off guard. Not so this time around.

(It is worth a mention that Kafka rewrote some records last week with his performance against Syracuse. He sprinkled in a few turnovers, including a game-clinching interception, but overall he was exceptional. Against the Orange, Kafka broke the consecutive completions mark and single-game completion percentage mark when he completed 16 straight and 83.3 percent on the day. His 390 yards were the 11th most in school history. So come to think of it, maybe he has a knack for breaking records.)

I'm curious, like Marco, to see what happens with the secondary. NU's starting running back, Stephen Simmons, is still hurt – he missed last week too – and in his stead will once again be Jacob Schmidt.

Schmidt is a hard-worker, but not much else unfortunately. He has 108 yards on 27 carries this season – exactly four yards per run – and his long run last week in 10 tries was six yards. Six. He finished with just 30 yards on 10 carries. With that sort of output, there is no way NU can get by without passing it. Like, a lot. Luckily for NU, Kafka is coming off a career game, plus dude leads the nation in completion percentage at better than 74 percent.

So yeah, UM's secondary will be paramount. Indeed, that may be the most important unit of this game.

At the same time, this will be an interesting test and measuring stick for Northwestern's offense, which has been kind of schizo this season. In the first game against Towson, the offense rolled. The team converted 70 percent of its third downs, Kafka was throwing darts, everyone who ran the ball looked good – especially Arby Fields,* a freshman who had six carries for 48 yards and two TDs.

*Curiously, Fields hasn't gotten the ball much the past two weeks. Last week against SU, he had a 25-yard scamper, but nonetheless only got two carries. Either he's hurt or in the doghouse. That, or it make no sense – none – that he is not playing more. If he again averages 12 yards per carry but only gets two touches, then PR's bafflement will turn to out-and-out frustration.

Alas, Towson was a horrific team, and it was obvious that NU's offense was playing against guys who shouldn't have been in Division I. Oh wait, they weren't.

In the Cats' second game, though, the O struggled. The scoreboard read "27," but seven of those came on a pick-six, and six more came on a pair of field goals – one of them of the last-second variety to earn the way-too-hard 27-24 win over Eastern Michigan. So the offense was iffy, but nonetheless the team won.

Then, last week against Syracuse, NU's O looked as good as it has all season. Kafka was absolutely on point passing with three TDs, and he also added a score on the ground. Hell, he even caught a touchdown. It was a classic performance. According to coach Pat Fitzgerald, it was "arguably one of the best games that a quarterback has played here in a long, long time." Oh, and NU scored 34 points.

Still, the running game stunk, and Syracuse still won.

So in its three games, NU's offense has: Looked outstanding against an outstandingly bad team; looked bad in a win; and looked good (for the most part) in a loss. The O is a big wildcard for sure.

Oddly, the defense is a bit of a wildcard too. This was supposed to be a defense-carried team, but last week the Cats got exposed. Syracuse scored 37, way more than it had scored in either of its first two games (combined). So whether or not the defense bounces back is just as important as which offense shows up.

Anyway, fellas. Prediction time. You obviously know plenty about the Gophers, and hopefully you are now up to speed about the Wildcats. So, what's going to happen in this conference opener?

Last week I got burned, calling for a defensive battle in Syracuse – 24-21 NU was the official prediction – but instead got a shootout, 37-34. I'll go ahead and swing back the other way: I'm calling for offense. Lots of it. Forget last year's no-second-half-points stuff. Ain't going to happen this year.

What IS going to happen: 34-31 Northwestern. If this game wasn't at home, I may think differently. And if I didn't have a feeling Fields was set to break out – seriously, he HAS to break out soon – then I may pick the Gophers. But it's the home conference opener. I can't go against the Cats.

You two, however, can pick whoever you want. How's about it…

LaNave: Well, I'd have to say that the performance last Saturday against California proved to me that the Gophers can play up to the competition. My concern is they might only play to the competition, which could be costly in Big Ten games.

The Gophers defense can have some dominant stretches, the offense can get hot for a drive or two, but as Gophers head coach Tim Brewster says, "It's about consistency." The defense has been the most consistent, and, I believe, will give the Gophers their best chance to win this weekend. The preparation has been solid for that unit, as I mentioned earlier, so expect another good performance on that side of the ball.

It sounds like this could be shootout, and the pass-to-run ratio might reach comical proportions if both teams (unsurprisingly if it's the case) abandon their ground games. While it will be a close game, it probably will not be a showcase for well-played Big Ten football (which, honestly, I might not be able to define).

I predict this game will go at least 3 ½ hours with all the passes thrown, and I think the Gophers – with their veteran team and a strong defense – pull it out, 27-23.

Cumblad: Well, I can go against the Cats, too, and even still feel like I'm making an objective choice. I predict this game to be played almost strictly through the air and each team to have a couple picks, but the shootout will ultimately end in a 31-27 win for Minnesota. But what do I know. Should be a fun one.

Huge thanks again to Marco LaNave and Austin Cumblad of the Minnesota Daily. You can read their work here, and as always, you can reach David Vranicar, publisher of Purple Reign, at

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