Turnovers will be key versus Wildcats

Todd Zolecki

Each week the Gophers football team digests hours of game film to prepare for its upcoming opponent, looking for some insight to crush its rival.
On this week’s menu is No. 15 Northwestern, the defending Big Ten champions. The Gophers watched, analyzed and reviewed tape all week, and most came to the same conclusion.
“They don’t make mistakes,” Gophers cornerback Rodney Heath said. “They don’t turn the ball over. They take care of the ball.”
Last season when the Wildcats made the Rose Bowl, they ranked third in the nation in turnover margin. They forced 33 turnovers and gave the ball away only 14 times.
It’s no wonder Northwestern won its first conference title since 1936 and finished the season 10-2.
In comparison the Gophers lost the ball 24 times, while forcing 19 turnovers. That placed them second to last in the Big Ten in turnover margin. Minnesota finished the season 3-8.
Turnovers can win or lose a game. On Saturday, Minnesota hopes it can minimize its mistakes and force the Wildcats to make some.
That’s the tricky part. The Gophers practice turnover drills each week, but defensive coordinator Tim Rose said the success of those drills varies.
“I haven’t seen a real big parallel between working on them and getting them,” he said. “We worked on them at Memphis and got very few. We worked at it at Cincinnati and we got a bunch.
“I think it’s opportunity, the players making the play and people being a little less protective like Syracuse was.”
Mistakes killed the Gophers in last weekend’s 30-27 loss to Purdue. Two interceptions thrown by quarterback Cory Sauter resulted in two Boilermakers touchdowns. Purdue also scored following a bad snap on a Gophers punt.
“Without a doubt,” Gophers coach Jim Wacker said. “Whoever wins the turnover battle will be the one that wins it.”
Gophers linebacker Parc Williams said Minnesota’s best chance to force turnovers is to pressure Wildcats quarterback Steve Schnur.
“Maybe he can make some bad throws, and we can get some picks,” Williams said.
Schnur has thrown six interceptions this season, most in the Big Ten. But the passing game won’t be the focus of Northwestern’s offense. Running back Darnell Autry is the Wildcats’ big gun. He ranks ninth in the nation in rushing, averaging 136 yards per game. He also has eight touchdowns.
The Gophers have four rushing touchdowns this year.
Minnesota receives a boost to its rushing game when Javon Jackson sees more playing time Saturday. The junior, who has been sidelined by an injured hamstring most of the season, won’t start but said he’ll be more involved with the offense.
Jackson played for the first time this season last Saturday against Purdue. He carried the ball three times for 11 yards.
Gophers offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse informed Jackson of the decision Thursday before practice. Jackson was excited to hear the news.
“I wanted to do well and do things for the team, and I wasn’t able to, so it was real tough for me,” he said.
The Gophers had Jackson penciled in as a starter before the season started. Rushing duties have been handled by freshmen Thomas Hamner and Byron Evans.
Jackson is well aware that Northwestern’s defense will be a tough test.
“The thing about their defense is that they execute,” he said. “You wouldn’t call them the best defense, but they go with what they have and they execute with them.”