U, ‘Cats face same old biz

Jeff Sherry

A lot has changed since the last time Northwestern and Minnesota faced each other on the football field. The most notable difference, of course, is that the Wildcats are now the defending Big Ten champions.
But in some ways, the scenario for this weekend’s game between the Gophers and Northwestern will closely follow that from a year ago:
ù The teams’ records are identical to last year coming into the game. Northwestern is 4-1. The Gophers are 3-1.
ù Minnesota’s only previous loss last year came against Syracuse — a game which featured a controversial non-call on a punt return, and one the Gophers thought they should’ve won. This year Minnesota’s only loss came against Purdue — a game which also featured a controversial non-call, and one the Gophers think they should’ve won.
ù For the second straight year, the Wildcats are coming into the game one weekend after upsetting Michigan. Both wins over the Wolverines validated Northwestern as a solid team to its skeptics.
And there have been plenty of skeptics. Last year Northwestern shocked Notre Dame in its opener, but many people wrote it off as a fluke when the Wildcats lost their following game to Miami of Ohio. Many of those same people called the Rose Bowl appearance a fluke after Northwestern opened this season with a loss at Wake Forest. Wake Forest went 0-8 in the ACC a year ago.
Gophers coach Jim Wacker isn’t one of the skeptics, but he also isn’t in awe of the Wildcats. On Tuesday, Wacker pointed to some of the teams’ similarities as reasons why he expects Minnesota to give Northwestern a good game.
“I think it’s going to be a very even-up ballgame just because they’ve beaten one ranked team and we’ve beaten one ranked team,” Wacker said. “And they’ve lost to one that wasn’t ranked, and we’ve lost to one that wasn’t ranked. (I don’t know) if that means anything; it probably doesn’t.”
But to say Minnesota is similar to Northwestern would be a bit of a reach. The Wildcats returned much of their all-conference talent from last year, and once again believe they can go to the Rose Bowl.
Northwestern’s stars have been both steady and spectacular. Linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, winner of last year’s Bednarik and Nagurski defensive player of the year awards, has recovered well after breaking his left leg against Iowa in November. He recorded a career-high 19 tackles last week against Michigan.
Darnell Autry, the Big Ten’s leading rusher last year, is also still going strong. He is averaging 136 yards per game, and has gained at least 100 yards in 18 straight contests. With 42 yards against Minnesota, Autry will pass Dennis Lundy’s mark of 3,062 yards and become NU’s all-time leading rusher.
But not everything is the same. The Wildcats’ offense has become more diverse, and defending them has become more difficult.
“Darnell’s been much like he was last year, except last year he was the show,” Northwestern coach Gary Barnett said. “We were able to make a few things happen on the play-action pass, but we became a team that if you could stop the run, you had a good chance of beating us. Now that’s no longer true.
“We don’t have to run the ball three downs. We’re able in the passing game to make bigger plays. We’re able to be more consistent with our offense and be a little more creative on first down.”
There are two other things the Gophers would like to see change — the game’s result and aftermath. Minnesota lost to Northwestern, 27-17, and went on to lose its final six games. A similar finish would ensure at least one dramatic change in next year’s matchup.