Wildcats wide open before matchup

Northwestern could be without its two star players in the Gophers game.

Jack Satzinger

After two straight losses and a bye week, the Gophers haven’t won a game since Sept. 21. Heading into a road trip against Northwestern, which has been ranked for much of the season, conventional wisdom suggests the Gophers will be eaten up by the Wildcats’ strong offense.

But after two straight losses of its own, Northwestern is unranked for the first time this season.

The Wildcats showed little fight in a 35-6 loss at Wisconsin last week, but that was largely due to injuries.

“The injuries hurt them,” Minnesota defensive coordinator and acting head coach Tracy Claeys said. “It just got them out of sync. … That’s not them.”

Northwestern is first in the Big Ten in red-zone efficiency, partly due to quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark’s speed. However, both Colter and Mark injured their ankles in last week’s loss to Wisconsin.

Colter is listed as probable, but Mark is questionable.

Northwestern   head coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged Mark’s potential loss would hurt his team.

“With what he’s brought to the team, he’s been phenomenal,” Fitzgerald said. “He wants to play so bad, it’s got to be eating at him.”

Mark’s loss would take some explosiveness away from Northwestern’s offense, but if Colter misses the game, Claeys said the Wildcats’ offense loses yet another dimension.

In addition to passing, Colter has four rushing touchdowns this season and even a receiving touchdown against Ohio State.

Northwestern utilizes a two-quarterback system that takes advantage of Colter’s speed in running situations but gives quarterback Trevor Siemian the chance to throw the ball as well.

“[Colter] extends plays. He’s more athletic,” Claeys said. “I’m not saying he can’t throw the ball, but he’s not as good at throwing the ball as [Siemian].”

Claeys said the Gophers won’t utilize a similar two-quarterback system with Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson because their skill sets don’t vary widely like Siemian and Colter’s.

They both like to run, which can open up the passing game.

“They’ve really involved the quarterbacks in the run game, and they put a lot of pressure on you,” Fitzgerald said. “When you decide to load the box, [offensive coordinator] Matt Limegrover does a nice job with the play-action pass.”

If Minnesota can do just that, it might be able to upset Northwestern — especially if Colter, Mark or both are inactive.

Either way, Fitzgerald said his team will be ready to bounce back.

“We just didn’t play very well a week ago,” Fitzgerald said. “They’ll come back and play well. I can promise you that.”