Preview: After week off, 'U' attempting to rebound versus Northwestern
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Who: Northwestern Wildcats (5-1, 1-1 in Big Ten) at Minnesota Gophers (4-1, 0-1).
When: 11 a.m.. Saturday.
Where: TCF Bank Stadium (capacity: 50,805).
Line: Northwestern by 3.5.
Coaches: Northwestern -- Pat Fitzgerald (7th season, 45-37). Gophers -- Jerry Kill (2nd season, 7-10).
Series: Minnesota leads 50-32-5.
Last meeting: Even with QB MarQueis Gray running for 147 yards, the Gophers couldn't keep with Northwestern as they were handed their ninth loss of the 2011 season in a 28-13 defeat on a blustery, cold November day in Evanston, Ill.
Last week: After a reality-checking 31-13 loss at Iowa, the Gophers spent their bye week regrouping and taking a back-to-basics approach in practice. The extra week off leaves to question how the Gophers will rebound after an extended time to dwell on their first loss of the season. Northwestern had a chance at its first 6-0 start in 50 years. Penn State squashed that hope with 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, dropping the Wildcats 39-28.
At stake: The Gophers are at a turning point in their season. In the last two years, losses like the debacle at Iowa City have derailed the Gophers. Saturday's homecoming match-up serves as an opportunity to prove if they are able to bounce back after an exposing defeat. At 4-1 and with seven games remaining, the Gophers are still well in range of turning out a successful season, but the margin for error is narrowing. While Gopher fans may scoff at the notion, the victor on Saturday will keep itself in the Big Ten Legends division title picture. Until the fourth quarter at Penn State, Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had been one of the strongest, most resilient teams in the Big Ten this season. Despite the loss, Northwestern remains on-track for one of the conference's top bowl games.
Gophers: QB MarQueis Gray was not on the team's weekly injury report, which released on Thursday, suggesting that he will likely play in some capacity on Saturday. He has spent the last three weeks recovering from a left MCL and high ankle sprain. He returned to practice on Sunday for the first time since suffering the injury on Sept. 15 during the Gophers' victory over Western Michigan. Starting LG Tommy Olson is recovering from a tweaked right ankle, which has kept him out against Iowa. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said he expects Olson to be available and plans to have him split time with redshirt freshman Jon Christenson. RT Foster Bush is out with a left knee injury. He was sidelined for the Iowa game and has since worn an orange no-contact jersey in practice. Redshirt freshman Ernie Heifort replaced Bush as the backup to starting RT Josh Campion on the 'U' depth chart. DT Roland Johnson and RB Devon Wright are both questionable with undisclosed injuries. WR Jamel Harbison is sidelined for the season as he rehabs from a torn right ACL.
Northwestern: DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (shoulder) and DE Roderick Goodlow (knee) are both out for the season.
Three things to watch
How much will Gray play?: Given his exclusion from the injury report, it would be a surprise if Gray doesn't play at least one or two offensive series on Saturday. The Gophers haven't stated officially what Gray's role will be, but leaving it as an unknown only helps to force Northwestern to game plan for both Gray and sophomore Max Shortell. "If he's in a situation where he feels comfortable and says, 'Hey coach, I'm ready to play, I feel good about it,' and he's not limping around," Kill said. "He's a smart kid. He's not going to say he's ready if he's not ready. He doesn't want to hurt his team." Regardless of Gray's status, Shortell is expected to start for the third straight game. Shortell had a rough outing against Iowa, throwing three interceptions. However, in four games he has passed for 688 total yards (172 ypg) and six touchdowns. With Gray nearing full strength, Saturday could give an early indication of how the Gophers plan to use their two quarterbacks as the season progresses. Northwestern has been heavily susceptible to the pass, surrendering a Big Ten-worst 287.8 yards per game through the air.
Run game in need of a reboot: The lack of productive run game crippled the "U" offense against Iowa. The Hawkeyes held the Gophers' three running backs -- Donnell Kirkwood, K.J. Maye and David Cobb to a combined 58 yards. It was a big letdown for Kirkwood, who entered averaging a solid 90.2 yards per game. Without the run support, the offense stalled repeatedly, posting only one drive longer than four plays (five) in the first half. By the second half, Shortell was forced to throw at a much higher rate than the Gophers had wanted. The Gophers have to find ways to avoid putting themselves in that position. The offensive line, which has had its depth tested by multiple injuries, has struggled to establish in-game continuity. Getting the line back on track will be key for the Gophers if they want to regain balance on offense. Northwestern presents an athletic 4-3 defense that is similar to what the Gophers saw against Syracuse. That familiarity, Limegrover said, is a large plus for the inconsistent "U" offense. "They're not going to lay in there on you," Limegrover told reporters Tuesday. "They're going to try to get through gaps. They're going to penetrate. That's more up our alley, more what our defense does, more of what we see a lot more. I think our kids feel comfortable with what they're seeing than they did against Iowa."
Can the defense rebound? As Iowa proved, momentary lapses on defense can badly hurt the Gophers. In an eight-minute stretch in the first half, Iowa slammed the Gophers for 24 unanswered points. The "U" only gave up 46 offensive yards in the second half, but by that point it didn't matter. "It's frustrating as hell, because all of a sudden the game is over," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "You're trying to catch up from 24-0. Because of that eight-play swing you pissed it all away. I think we're better than that." Northwestern has the capabilities of doing the same thing to the Gophers if Claeys' group can't remedy the brief letdowns they experienced two weeks ago. Northwestern's offense ranks 14th in the nation in rushing yards (233.5 ypg), and junior Venric Mark has been the No. 1 reason why. With nine touchdowns already, Mark is currently one of the most potent offensive figures in the Big Ten. Mark is also a special teams threat, having returned two punts for touchdowns this season. Slowing down Mark is a huge concern for the Gophers. They had a despairingly difficult time trying to stop Iowa's rushing attack as fullback Mark Weisman ran for 177 yards. The secondary had been a strength of the Gophers' defense in the first four games, but missed tackles and a limited personnel group to pull from -- CB Martez Shabazz (toe) was out and Brock Vereen (knee) was used only in nickel situations -- compounded to make for a trying outing. If the Gophers run into problems again stopping Northwestern up front with their D-line and linebacker corps, they will need an elevated performance from the secondary to bail them out.
Northwestern's dual quarterback system also adds another wrinkle for the Gophers to contend with. Northwestern lists Kain Colter as its starting QB, but the dynamic junior splits his time under center and at wide receiver, where he has reeled in 15 passes for 94 yards. When Colter is at QB, he is always a threat to run. He has tallied 442 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground this season. But Colter's passing has not been as reliable. Redshirt sophomore Trevor Siemian has been responsible for the majority of Northwestern's pass production (79-of-120, 812 yards), more than doubling Colter's passing total (45-of-68, 369 yards). "I think by moving (Colter) to wide receiver, and they have another quarterback capable of throwing the ball, I think it just upgrades their athletic ability on the field," Gophers' defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "They don't have three other receivers better than Colter."
The call: Northwestern
Northwestern is the type of team the Gophers, at this stage in Kill's rebuilding attempt, should be able to beat, especially with the game being held in friendly confines. However, the Gophers have yet to prove they can do so. The program has obviously undergone a positive mentality shift in the last year, but it won't be fully accepted until it consistently translates to the field in crucial conference games. Though the Gophers' offense shouldn't struggle as much as it did at Iowa, Northwestern may put up points at a rate the "U" can't match.