Daily Breakdown: Gophers have tough matchup on Senior Day against Northwestern

Gophers wide receiver Tyler Johnson runs the ball down the field against the Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

Meagan Lynch

Gophers wide receiver Tyler Johnson runs the ball down the field against the Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

Mike Hendrickson

Minnesota (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) ends its home season against an evenly-matched Northwestern (5-5, 4-3 Big Ten) Saturday. A full breakdown, prediction and other notes can be found below.

When Minnesota runs the ball:

The Gophers rushed for 100 yards or more every game this season before their matchup against No. 19 Nebraska. The group took a step back Saturday after they were held to 85 yards on 34 attempts.

The Huskers were the best rushing defense Minnesota had faced all year, but Northwestern’s is just as good. For the second straight week, running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks will be tested.

The Wildcats have allowed 145.2 rushing yards a game this season — sixth in the Big Ten. However, in their past three games, that number has inflated to 176. Smith and Brooks won’t have career days, but they still give Minnesota the slight edge.

Matchup to watch: RB Rodney Smith vs. LB Anthony Walker Jr.

Advantage: Minnesota

When Northwestern runs the ball:

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley was the best running back Minnesota will face in the regular season, but Northwestern’s Justin Jackson is a close second.

The junior is second in the Big Ten with 103.7 rushing yards a game and has rushed for over 120 yards in a game four times this season. He has struggled against tough rushing defenses, though, putting up only 42 and 76 yards against No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 2 Ohio State, respectively.

While the Gophers rushing defense isn’t as good as those two teams, it still is among the best in the conference. They have held opponents to a fourth-best 122 yards a game in the Big Ten and limited Barkley when they played him. Although Jackson has breakout potential, Minnesota’s rushing defense is very strong.

Matchup to watch: RB Justin Jackson vs. LB Nick Rallis

Advantage: Minnesota

When Minnesota passes the ball:

There’s no way around it: Minnesota’s passing offense is almost nonexistent at this point.

Quarterback Mitch Leidner has thrown only one touchdown in conference play this season, and has yet to throw a touchdown against an FBS team at home.

The Gophers are running the ball a lot, but Leidner still has a 1-6 TD/INT ratio against Big Ten teams.

Northwestern’s passing defense is the worst in the Big Ten in yards allowed per game. Still, Northwestern’s pass defense limited Leidner last year.

He completed less than half his passes for 72 yards and one interception. The Wildcats still have a positive TD-INT ratio, and are just good enough to prevent Leidner from having a strong day.

Matchup to watch: WR Drew Wolitarsky vs. CB Montre Hartage

Advantage: Northwestern

When Northwestern passes the ball:

Wide receiver Austin Carr has been the best at his position in the Big Ten this season. Quarterback Clayton Thorson has constantly gone to him, as Carr leads the conference in receptions by 18 and has the most yards per game by over 35.

Carr has elevated Northwestern’s passing attack to third in the conference. The Wildcats average 257.5 yards a game and Thorson has thrown 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions this season.

Minnesota’s passing defense has similar numbers to Thorson and has allowed 20 touchdowns this season and grabbed just eight interceptions. The group has struggled this year and can’t seem to find any consistency. This could be where the Wildcats win the game.

Matchup to watch: WR Austin Carr vs. S Damarius Travis

Advantage: Northwestern

Prediction:

Northwestern 17, Minnesota 13.

This game could go either way, but injuries on Minnesota’s offensive line and the Wildcats’ strong passing attack gives them the very slight edge.

Prediction record: 8-2

Around the web on the Gophers and the Wildcats:

1. Big Ten-leading receiver. Gifted musician. Northwestern walk-on Austin Carr is not throwing away his shot

-A great profile by Lindsay Schnell of Campus Rush on the potential Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Austin Carr comes from a family of musicians, and was in musicals all throughout high school. The best receiver in the Big Ten this season (by far) had no Power-5 offers out of high school, and still went with football over music. There’s a video at the bottom of him singing “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon that won him Northwestern’s student-athlete talent show. This is just an awesome profile on an incredibly talented person.

2. Former coach Jerry Kill settles into new job, life at Kansas State

-The Wichita Eagle’s Kellis Robinett gives an update on former Gophers football head coach Jerry Kill and what he’s doing at Kansas State as an associate athletic director. Kill is acting as an assistant football coach at Kansas State, Robinett writes, and Kill said his job is a “perfect fit.”

3. In Focus: Spending big on the future of Northwestern football

-Bobby Pillote of the Daily Northwestern writes about the new athletics facilities being planned in Evanston. It will be the most expensive practice facility in the Big Ten (Minnesota’s Athletes Village is second) as it will cost $260 million. A well-researched, long-form read with a good historical look on the project, set to be completed in summer 2018.

4. Strange connections brought Jalen Myrick to Minnesota

-Jalen Myrick’s lone Power-5 offer was to Minnesota, and he got the offer partly due to a family friend’s connection to former Gophers basketball head coach Tubby Smith. The Pioneer Press’ Andy Greder writes a profile on the Gophers cornerback and his journey from Georgia to Minnesota and his overall maturation.

5. Northwestern RB Justin Jackson ready for even more carries, if that’s possible

-This is a good read on Northwestern’s star running back Justin Jackson. ESPN’s Jesse Temple wrote this piece before the season started and examined Jackson’s approach to possibly taking on a bigger work load this year. He’s currently averaging 22.3 attempts a game, the second most in the Big Ten after finishing first in the same category last year.

Three takes:

1. Running game might have trouble for rest of season.

-Minnesota’s rushing offense faced the first hard defense of the season last week against No. 18 Nebraska and rushed for 85 yards on 34 attempts. Things could get worse. The offensive line continues to deal with more injuries as guard Jared Weyler is out for the game against Northwestern. Both Northwestern and No. 7 Wisconsin have above average rushing defenses in the Big Ten and could cause problems for Smith and Brooks. Minnesota’s days of getting over 150-plus yards and two touchdowns on the ground this season may be over.

2. Start looking at bowl projections after this game.

-The Gophers are going to a bowl game this year. We can start guessing what bowl game they’ll go to after Minnesota’s game against Northwestern. Projections have the team in a wide array of bowl games right now, but the projections should all start pointing to the same one after this game. The projections right now can’t tell us much because Saturday’s game could really go either way.

3. Gophers’ passing problems will get worse next year.

-If you think the Gophers’ passing game has problems this season, just wait until next year. Minnesota will be without Leidner, and the adjustment could be a very tough one as he has been their main start for the past three seasons. Additionally, Drew Wolitarsky, the Gophers’ leading receiver by 35 receptions, will graduate as well so there will be plenty of changes among the group for next season. Minnesota has another easy schedule in 2017 (starting 8-0 is not that far-fetched), but in order to capitalize on that, the Gophers need to answer a lot of questions about their passing offense in the offseason. The running backs won’t be able to do it all.

The Minnesota Daily’s coverage of the team from this past week:

1. Gophers are passing less, scoring more

-Mitch Leidner hasn’t thrown a touchdown since Minnesota’s game at Penn State. That hasn’t mattered as the Gophers are scoring a lot more points this season compared to last year. A look into the numbers and Leidner’s reaction to handing the ball off more in his senior season.

2. Cashman takes on new, bigger role at linebacker

-Blake Cashman came into this season thinking he’d seen an increased role on special teams. Instead, he’s quietly become one of the Gophers’ better linebackers this season. A short feature on him and his mindset.

3. Questions from the Other Side: Northwestern football beat writer Bobby Pillote

-For this week’s Questions from the Other Side, the Minnesota Daily spoke with Bobby Pillote, the assistant gameday editor with the Daily Northwestern. Pillote gives his takes on Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats’ bowl game chances and a prediction for Saturday’s game.

4. Gophers to play Northwestern in final home game

-It’s going to be Senior Day for Minnesota Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, but walking away with a win won’t be easy. Various seniors from the program talk about moving on from the Nebraska loss and preparing for Northwestern.

5. Missed tackles and blocking spell loss for Gophers

-Sidebar from the Minnesota-Nebraska game about the Gophers struggles with blocking and missed tackles.

6. Gophers fall to Nebraska 24-17 on late interception

-Game recap from the Minnesota-Nebraska game in Lincoln.

Everything else you need to know:

Start time: 2:30 p.m. CST, Saturday, Nov. 19

Network: Big Ten Network

Radio: KFAN 100.3 FM

Line: Northwestern by 1

Minnesota depth chart

Northwestern depth chart