Minnesota's defense gives Gophers a real shot to finally land a marquee win
Minnesota has basically performed the way it’s been expected to every week this season.
The games the Gophers have been expected to win, they have. The games they’ve been expected to lose? Yeah, they’ve done that as well. It’s been kind of a ho-hum type of season for Tracy Claeys and company – if you can even say that about a team that’s 8-3.
This was another game the Gophers should’ve won, and they did. Convincingly.
Northwestern’s offense had been rolling coming into TCF Bank Stadium. The Wildcats had totaled more than 400 yards in four of its last five games and scored 54 points against Michigan State and 45 a week ago against Purdue. Clayton Thorson had thrown three touchdown passes in five games, Justin Jackson eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and Austin Carr was leading the B1G in nearly every receiving category.
None of that mattered.
Minnesota’s defense dominated from start to finish. The defensive line won the battle in the trenches and knocked Thorson around frequently. The Gophers finished the afternoon with seven sacks and prohibited the emerging sophomore from getting into any sort of rhythm.
Jackson was bottled up as well. The three-time 1,000-yard rusher was held to just 90 yards on 22 carries and Northwestern finished the day with just 64 rushing yards, the team’s second-lowest total of the season.
The team’s best defensive performance comes one week before a meeting with rival Wisconsin.
And in next week’s season finale, the Gophers are going to be playing in another game their not suppose to win.
Minnesota has come up short in marquee games this season. The Gophers blew a 10-point halftime lead and fell to Penn State in overtime in Happy Valley. A week later, they were denied the Floyd of Rosedale when the offense couldn’t get rolling, losing 14-7 to Iowa. Just last week, a late-game touchdown by Tommy Armstrong Jr. and an interception by Mitch Leidner on the ensuing possession halted any hopes of an upset bid in Lincoln.
Seven points or less. That’s been the difference in all three of Minnesota’s losses. In those games they weren’t supposed to win, they didn’t make enough plays to get over the hump.
One more chance remains, though. And, if the defense that pummeled Northwestern travels to Camp Randall Stadium, Claeys and the Gophers have a really good shot to notch that impressive win.
Containing Wisconsin’s trio of running backs – Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw – will be a pretty tough challenge, sure, but Minnesota has handled that task well in the past. After Saturday, it ranks second in the B1G in defending the run. And though the Badgers have improved throwing the football, the passing attack has been hit or miss with Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston under center.
There’s a real chance. Probably more of one than people are willing to admit, but Minnesota matches up well with its division foe and has the weapons to stun the conference.
How the Gophers offense operates against a stingy Badgers defense could ultimately be the tale of the contest. It was Minnesota’s inability to move the ball against Iowa that cost them an opportunity to win that trophy game, too. And as good as Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks have been, they’ve really not lined up across from a defense quite as stout as Wisconsin’s.
The offensive line will need to be stellar. Running backs will have to scrap for every inch and receivers are going to have to run hard routes to create separation. Leidner is going to have to play perfect.
But Minnesota’s defense proved against Northwestern that it’s good enough to keep next week’s game close. And if we’ve learned anything from this season, it’s that in a close game, anything can happen.
Next week’s game carries a lot of importance for both teams. For Wisconsin, a B1G West title is on the line. Minnesota, on the other hand, hasn’t beaten the Badgers since 2003. It’s come close each of the past two seasons but ultimately fell short of bringing Paul Bunyan’s Axe back to Minneapolis.
2003 was also the last time Minnesota won more than eight games in a season, finishing the year 10-3. A victory next Saturday would be the team’s ninth with a chance to get its 10th in a bowl game.
Could this be the year the losing streak is snapped? Could the Gophers claim the Axe and chop down Wisconsin’s hopes of a B1G title or a College Football Playoff berth?
The Gophers haven’t done anything unexpected all season.
There’s a first time for everything.