Cats, Gophers already banged up for clash
Who: Minnesota vs. Northwestern
When: Saturday, 11 a.m. CT
Where: Ryan Field, Northwestern
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Northwestern -4
Matchup to watch: Anthony Walker vs. Minnesota RB’s
Northwestern had SEVEN guys injured in Saturday’s win against Ball State, including safety Godwin Igwebuike and defensive tackle Ifeadi Odenigbo. They’re all expected to be back in action for Saturday, but without the defense at 100 percent, Walker will have an even greater responsibility to lock down the Minnesota ground game. Rodney Smith could present Walker with his toughest assignment yet. Add in Shannon Brooks, who scored two touchdowns after getting his first career carries last Saturday, and the Wildcat linebacker is going to have plenty to account for.
Thing I’m excited to see: A defensive struggle
If I’m betting on any B1G game to look like a B1G game, it’s this one. Smash-mouth, run-heavy, solid defensive football should tell the story in this one. Both teams have been stellar against the pass, and with a couple of quarterbacks that aren’t the most accurate, expect them to rely heavily on the ground game to move the chains. Both teams will do what they usually do. The difference is, neither team has met an opponent that has mirrored their exact style this year. Get ready for some ball-control, lull-you-to-death offensive gameplans. Minnesota could be without ace corner Brian Boddy-Calhoun, who won’t need surgery on his injured knee but is listed as questionable for Saturday.
Number to remember: 8.8
That’s how many points per game Northwestern is allowing. Last week’s 19-point surrender was the Wildcats’ worst of the season, though they were losing defenders left and right. For a Minnesota defense that’s struggled to distance itself from MAC schools at home, that’s troubling. Mitch Leidner has to convert third downs — Northwestern’s defense is the best in the country on third down — and he can’t turn the ball over. In a game of inches, Leidner can’t afford to make critical mistakes when the Gophers need to keep the Wildcat defense on the field.
Prediction: Northwestern 17, Minnesota 14
Pat Fitzgerald said this week that he wants to eventually lighten the workload for Justin Jackson, who has 30-plus carries in back-to-back games. I don’t think that happens this week. Fitzgerald will want to let Jackson wear down the Gophers, and not put it all on a freshman quarterback to beat a stout defense. I think this ends up being a game that Northwestern gets a league early and forces the Gophers go to the air to rally in the fourth quarter. You can’t be one-dimensional against the Wildcats. Northwestern delivers yet another solid defensive effort and remains unbeaten.