Both Minnesota and Northwestern head into Saturday’s game in Evanston 0-2 in the Big Ten Conference. Northwestern started the season with expectations of competing for a conference championship, while Minnesota hoped to return to the postseason. After perfect 4-0 records for both teams in the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Gophers and Wildcats will tee it up on Saturday, both desperate for a victory.
Minnesota is coming off a bye week, while Northwestern was thrashed last week by Wisconsin, 35-6. Something has to give in this matchup. One of these teams will register its first conference win, while the other may be left for dead.
Pat Fitzgerald will have his team ready to play on Saturday, I can promise you that. He’s too good of a coach to put back-to-back stinkers together. But I also think the Gophers will play their best game of the season. So in other words, I think Gophers and Wildcats fans will be treated to the best game in the Big Ten this week.
Now let’s take a look at the units and find out who has the edge.
Minnesota Offense: Acting head coach Tracy Claeys confirmed that Mitch Leidner will be the starting quarterback. Claeys also said that he plans on giving backup Philip Nelson some snaps, something I don’t agree with. The Gophers strength on offense is a physical running attack anchored by Leidner, and tailbacks Rodrick Williams, Donnell Kirkwood, and David Cobb. Defending the run also happens to be Northwestern’s weakness on defense.
Northwestern Offense: The Wildcats are one of very few teams that can operate a two quarterback system successfully. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian compliment one another beautifully. Colter is an elite athlete that can run and pass effectively. He can also split out wide while Siemian is under center. Siemian is an accurate passer, and that is deadly in the Wildcats spread attack. Wildcats running back Venric Mark, a preseason All-American candidate is a bit banged up, but is expected to play against the Gophers.
Offensive Edge: Northwestern
Minnesota Defense: This is the game the Minnesota secondary and pass rush, two units I had high hopes for in the preseason, need to assert themselves. They cannot afford anything less than their best efforts. If the Gophers secondary is aggressive and Claeys times his blitzes right, the Gophers have a chance to slow down the Northwestern offense.
Northwestern Defense: Frankly, this was a unit that was destroyed by Wisconsin. The Wildcats surrendered 527 yards of offense to the Badgers, including 286 yards on the ground. The Gophers have an opportunity to right their ship offensively against a vulnerable Northwestern defense.
Defensive Edge: Minnesota
Minnesota Special Teams: Electrifying return man Marcus Jones has been awfully quiet of late. Perhaps he is due to pop a big one and turn the momentum of a football game. You could make the argument that Jones did just that in the season opener against UNLV, returning the second half kickoff 98-yards for a touchdown and turning the tide of a game that was 16-13 at half into a 51-23 blowout win for Minnesota.
Northwestern Special Teams: Northwesten kicker Jeff Budzien has connected on 11-of-13 field goals for a hefty 84.6 percent success rate. Matt Harris has returned 11 kicks for 268 yards for a respectable average of 24.4 yards per return.
Special Teams Edge: Minnesota
Minnesota Coaching: Anyone that thinks Jerry Kill’s absence doesn’t have any effect on the team is being delusional. Kill is the leader of the team and the troops are going into the battle without their general. Claeys and the rest of the staff have been with Kill for a long time and know what he wants on gameday, but it isn’t the same thing as having him there. However, those kids will play their guts out for Kill in his honor and may use his absence as a motivating factor.
Northwestern Coaching: That loss to Wisconsin isn’t something Pat Fitzgerald will want to point out on his resume. However, he is still one of the best young coaches in football, end of discussion.