Gophers Preview – Minnesota vs. Northwestern

Luke Middendorf

DLast Week

The Gophers were unable to snap their winless streak in the Big Ten last week as they fell to Indiana in Bloomington, 40-20. While being able to stay toe-to-toe with the Hoosiers through the first quarter as the score was tied at 14, the Gophers couldn’t keep up with the high-powered offense of Indiana much longer than that. Minnesota was held to just 112 yards rushing, much of which came late in the game by backup running back Jay Thomas.

Northwestern pulled out their first Big Ten victory of the season last Saturday in a wild 48-41 overtime victory over Michigan State on the road. The Wildcats were led by junior quarterback C.J. Bacher, who threw for a school record 520 yards and five touchdowns. Bacher also completed 38-of-48 passes in the game.

How they Stack Up

Offense

The Gophers tradition of a great rushing offense has been halted since Big Ten play began, as they have slipped down to eighth in the conference. Senior running back Amir Pinnix continues to be hobbled with a turf toe injury, and is listed as third on this week’s depth chart. True freshman running back Duane Bennett had a strong first quarter in last week’s contest, but went down early with an ankle injury, leaving sophomore speedster Jay Thomas to carry the load. If Bennett is healthy enough to suit up, he and Thomas will both see a lot carries this week. Freshman quarterback Adam Weber is coming off a two-interception performance last week, and will need to limit turnovers against Northwestern to keep the Gophers in the game.

The Wildcats rank second in the Big Ten and 18th in the nation with their spread passing offense, but rank second to last in the conference in rushing and scoring offense. Northwestern is averaging almost 300 yards through the air in each game, but has thrown just nine touchdowns, ranking them 10th in the Big Ten. Junior quarterback C.J. Bacher threw for 520 yards last week, which ranks as the fifth-best passing performance in conference history. The Wildcats also feature six receivers that have gained double-digits in receptions.

defense

Ranking last in the Big Ten in rushing defense, pass defense and total defense, Everett Wither’s defensive unit has yet to have shown real improvement as the season rolls along. The Gophers defense will have their hands full again this week as they face another high-powered offense in Northwestern. The hope is that current Minnesota and former Northwestern offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar will be able to shed some light on how to pick apart the Wildcats offense. Defensive linemen Neel Allen and Garrett Brown will see more time this week because of the need for more size in the interior and senior linebacker Mike Sherels might play less or not at all depending on the recovery speed from last week’s injury.

The Wildcats are not far ahead of the Gophers on the defensive side of the ball, as they rank tenth in the Big Ten in rushing defense and total defense. Senior linebacker and co-captain Adam Kadela leads Northwestern with 55 tackles, good for fourth in the Big Ten. The Wildcats are having trouble getting after the quarterback, as they are averaging less than one sack per game, ranking 112th in the nation. The defense also isn’t known for gaining turnovers, having a negative turnover margin at -0.83 per game.

Special Teams

Kickoff returns have been a strong point for Minnesota, as they rank third in the Big Ten with 25.1 yards per return. Freshman Harold Howell continues to improve and sophomore Jay Thomas has broken a few long returns as well. The Gophers continue to rank first in the conference in kickoff coverage.

Kicker Amando Villarreal of Northwestern has converted 17-of-18 PAT kicks and is 7-of-8 field goals. Return man Stephen Simmons is averaging 30.5 yards per kick return, and returned a kick 99 yards for a touchdown earlier in the season.

Players to watch

Adam Weber QB No. 8 freshman

Weber has consistently been at the top of the Big Ten in passing offense, but has also been turnover prone. He has thrown a total of 12 interceptions, the most in the conference. Weber is also ranked third in total offense. Weber will need to take care of the ball this week to gain his first Big Ten win against Northwestern.

C.J. Bacher QB No. 18 junior

Bacher lit up the sky last week as he threw for 520 yards and five touchdowns, good enough to gain player of the week honors. He is second in the Big Ten in total offense, with more than 300 yards per game. Look for Bacher to attempt to outdo last week’s performance by picking apart the struggling Gopher’s secondary.

Thoughts on the Game

“I think one of the huge keys for us offensively is to have balance. We can’t put too much pressure on Adam Weber, where he has to throw the ball 44 times in a football game. I think we really have to strive for better balance offensively, I thought the first couple of drives (against Indiana) we really did some great things running the football … We lost Duane Bennett, which hurt (because) Duane Bennett has proven to be an outstanding football player. Those are the things offensively that I think we have to do.” – Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster

“You watch the games that I’ve watched so far on tape, and they’re making plays left and right. For instance, I’m watching the Indiana game, a guy trips and falls down and gets an interception, just seems like momentum may not be on your side, and plays like that happen against you. I see a football team that, as they are moving forward week to week, are finding ways to get the ball on offense in the playmaker’s hands that they have, and on defense, are very aggressive. We just need to trust in what we see, trust in our plan as we formulate that today, and handle what we can control, and that is ourselves.” – Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald