Now onto some other Big Ten action – and another game preview with your favorite Golden Gopher alumnus, Gopher Bandanna Guy. We really need to find an OSU or PSU alum to contribute some previews about relavent Big Ten teams, huh?
Anyways, let’s quickly recap last week. Sadly, my predictions for the Minny vs. Cal game were nearly spot on (final score, Weber and Decker TDs, Jahvid Best rushing yards – ok so I short changed him on TDs, etc.). Another beautiful day for outdoor football at ‘The Bank’, but in the end, Minnesota did end up being outclassed by a superior team. However, they also showed that they could hang with a top 10 team, by coming back from a 0-14 deficit early, and playing Cal equal into the 4th quarter. A couple late interceptions cost the Gophers a chance at the big upset, but heads were held high after the game, and the team’s belief in itself should carry into the next week.
That brings us to this weekend. The Gophers open up the Big Ten season on the road, heading down to Evanston for a battle with those ever pesky Wildcats. Under the Brewster and Fitzgerald regimes, the last two meetings between these teams have been fights to the finish. In 2007, Minnesota lost a double OT thriller after Coach Brew decided to go for the 2pt conversion and avoid a 3rd OT. A gutsy decision (but one I agreed with), as they were on the road. In 2008, Minnesota was stunned when a pass was deflected twice over the middle of the field, before being returned by the Wildcats for a TD in the closing minute of the game to take the lead.
Despite these teams’ recent tight battles, this week I fully expect Minnesota to come out and take this game away from Northwestern early. Ryan Field is hardly a home field advantage, and the Gopher faithful are expected to travel well for this game. Northwestern has hardly impressed so far this year, barely slipping by Eastern Michigan, and losing to Syracuse. They are also suffering from a number of injuries at key positions.
Conversely, Minnesota got by the same Syracuse team, beat a tough option-running team in Air Force, and went toe-to-toe with #8 Cal. They remain relatively healthy at all key positions (although Eric Decker is a little dinged up), and seem to have stronger mental fortitude than Coach Brewster’s previous teams.
QB Mike Kafka is Northwestern’s best player on offense, and ran wild on the Gophers while filling in for C.J. Bacher in 2008. For Minnesota to win, Kafka’s ability to run after the pocket has collapsed must be countered. To do this I expect Minnesota to keep LB spies on Kafka most of the game, particularly in 3rd down situations. This burden will likely be shared by OLBs Simoni Lawrence and Nate Triplett. Syracuse spent most of its time on defense blitzing Kafka, but I believe Minnesota will be more careful in picking their spots when pressuring him. The Gophers have enough trust in their secondary to cover receivers with a 4-man rush most of the time.
Offensively Minnesota must continue to try and assert D’uane Bennett and DeLeon Eskeridge in the running game to keep NU honest and open up the passing lanes for Weber and Co. Weber must also be more careful as protection breaks down and be willing to throw balls out of bounds when needed. He did this as a frosh, and it needs to be in his repertoire now, realizing he can’t make every play. The Gopher offensive line finally began to show signs of “getting it” by the second half of the Cal game, and if this progression continues, some overdue long runs could be the result.
Any wild cards in all this? Sure. Backup QB Marquis Gray scored his first TD last week (as a receiver) and his periodic injection into the game means the ball may go weird places and for large positive gains. Also, Minnesota’s KR specialist, Troy Stoudemire seems like he'll break that 99-yarder every week, but just misses. Its only a matter of time. I think he pulls off the full return for score this week.
Predictions: Minnesota 30, Northwestern 17
Northwestern Player of the Game: Slot WR Andrew Brewer – hauls in 9 balls for 125 yards receiving & 1 TD
Minnesota Player of the Game: SS Kyle Theret – 10 tackles, 2 pass-breakups, 1 INT
Once again I’ll be attending this game in person, bandanna in tow. Stay tuned for a recap next week and perhaps more importantly - a review of that lone bar in Evanston.