Gophers defense faces Northwestern offensive juggernaut

First it was Ohio’s option. Next came Purdue’s aerial assault. Then back to the option, this time delivered by Indiana. Now this: Northwestern’s no-huddle offense.
Opponents have thrown everything at Minnesota’s defense this season, and the results have been inconsistent.
In the Gophers’ eight games, Minnesota is 5-0 against the run-right-at-you, no-nonsense offenses. The defense has allowed just 12.4 points per game in the five wins.
But when it comes to an out-of the-ordinary offensive scheme, the Gophers are 0-3 and allowing an average of 37.3 points per game.
What’s up with that?
“I don’t know, if you can tell me I’ll pay you,” said Minnesota defensive tackle John Schlecht.
This time around the Gophers draw the Big Ten’s surprise of the year — Northwestern — for a Homecoming showdown at the Metrodome on Saturday.
Picked by most publications to finish somewhere near Iowa at the bottom of the conference, the 23rd-ranked Wildcats (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) have shocked their critics and are one of only four teams with only one conference loss.
Implemented by second-year coach Randy Walker, the no-huddle attack is one of the main reasons for Northwestern’s success this season.
“They are always at the line,” Mason said. “It causes some organizational problems, some communication problems.”
Problems for opponents, but certainly not problems for the Wildcats. Northwestern’s offense is ranked first in the Big Ten at 35.9 points per game and second at 454.3 yards per game.
But despite the strong numbers, Walker doesn’t see what the excitement is all about.
“It’s not as complicated as you think,” Walker said. “Quite frankly, 75 to 80 percent of what we’re doing we have always done.
“There are some things we’re doing differently, but not as much as you might think.”
Walker might think his offense game plan is the same as always, but he can’t say the same about its execution. And that starts with the key positions of running back and quarterback.
Northwestern tailback Damien Anderson is in the midst of a breakout year running the ball for the Wildcats. The junior’s rushing stats (157.9 yards per game) are good for second in the Big Ten and fourth in the nation.
Mason compares Anderson to last year’s Gophers running back Thomas Hamner, saying they both had solid careers going for them before busting out and surprising the rest of the conference.
“He has great speed,” Mason said of Anderson, who rushed for 1,128 yards in 11 games last season, but already has 1,105 in seven games this year. “If you don’t contain him he’ll take it the distance on any play.”
Calling the shots for Northwestern is quarterback Zak Kustok. The transfer from Notre Dame is third in the conference in total offense at 221.6 yards per game behind … who else? Drew Brees and Antwaan Randle El.
Gophers defensive coordinator David Gibbs said Minnesota will have its hands full with Northwestern’s offense. It’s not because of the quickness, but because of its effectiveness to break down opposing defenses.
“They use (the no-huddle) to see what kind of coverage you’re in, to make sure they don’t run a bad football play,” Gibbs said. “Rarely do you see them run a play against a defense they have no chance against.”
Whether facing the option, an aerial assault or the no-huddle, the Gophers defense will have to regroup this weekend after last Saturday’s 51-point output by Indiana.
Anything less and Minnesota will be in for another offensive outburst by its opponent, and a possible third conference loss that will drop them further back in the conference standings.
“You don’t get a breather in the Big Ten,” Minnesota defensive end Karon Riley said. “The Big Ten is a rat race and every week you are jockeying for a position.”

John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]