Gophers play Wildcats in Big Ten opener

Northwestern built a 14-0 lead on Minnesota last year, before falling 42-17 in Evanston, Ill.

Dan Miller

On Oct. 4, Northwestern’s offense owned Minnesota’s football team’s defense for a quarter.

After the first 15 minutes of the Gophers’ 42-17 romp over the Wildcats in Evanston, Ill., Northwestern had a 14-0 lead and a 146-to-8 advantage in total yards.

Northwestern coach Randy Walker and his underdog Wildcats said they know they will have to sustain that kind of performance over a whole game to contend with the Gophers and their nationally third-ranked offense – especially after the Wildcats gave up 95 points in their three nonconference games.

“We’re going to have to kick it up a couple notches,” Walker said. “We know we are going to have to play our best football.”

And the Wildcats’ (1-2) best football revolves around a rejuvenated and dangerous passing game.

After a sub-par sophomore campaign, junior quarterback Brett Basanez appears to have regained the form he had as a redshirt freshman.

He ranks first in Big Ten passing yards (933) and total offense (1005). In a conference short on veteran quarterbacks, only Purdue’s Kyle Orton and Penn State’s Zach Mills have more experience than Basanez.

Walker said Tuesday that his quarterback’s improvement and three years of service give his team an edge.

“He’s playing very well for us right now,” Walker said. “We’re pleased with the number of snaps and experience he has.”

Many of those snaps have led to passing plays. Basanez also leads the Big Ten in passing attempts by a wide margin.

“We have watched film for the past three days, and they pass the ball a lot,” Gophers cornerback Trumaine Banks said.

Coach Glen Mason said he watched Basanez play against Texas Christian and knows how much the Wildcats throw. He called the Wildcats receiver-loaded spread offense one “that gives you fits.”

Northwestern, who finished 4-4 in the Big Ten last year, went to its first bowl game since 2000 and returns most of its starters.

Basanez has played well throughout the Wildcats nonconference schedule, despite having only one win – last week’s victory over Kansas. Both of their losses were nail-biters against the Frogs and 22nd-ranked Arizona State, who beat then-16th-ranked Iowa 44-7 last week.

Minnesota co-captain and defense end Darrell Reid said the Gophers’ defensive strategy against the pass will start by stopping the run.

“If they get their run game going, then we’re in trouble,” Reid said. “We have to stop the running game.”

But Basanez is still on the minds of the Gophers’ defenders – especially those in the secondary who will no doubt get a heavy dose of passes thrown their way.

Banks admitted, similar to basketball teams defending prolific scorers, the Gophers have to contain the Wildcats passing game.

“They are going to complete some passes,” Banks said. “It’s just going to be minimizing their big plays.”