After a hard fought battle loss to California in their second game at TCF Bank Stadium, the Minnesota Golden Gophers look to get back on track in their Big Ten opener. They will travel on the road for the first time in two weeks to Evanston, Illinois to face the Wildcats of Northwestern.
Both teams have a common opponent in the Syracuse Orangemen. Both teams played the Orange to a three point margin with different outcomes. It took the Gophers overtime to defeat them in their first game of the season with a late game-tying 26 yard field goal by Eric Ellestad. With Nate Triplett intercepting Greg Paulus on third down inside the five yard line, Minnesota only needed a field goal to seal the deal. Eric Ellestad was called upon again. He nailed the kick and Minnesota escaped New York with a victory.
Similarly, Northwestern traveled to the Carrier Dome last weekend and was tied 34-34 with time running out late in the game. A last-second 41 yard field goal by Syracuse Kicker, Ryan Lichtenstein was good as time expired.
Minnesota looks to avenge a home loss to the Wildcats last season. At the time, Minnesota was 7-1 and had hopes of playing in a New Year's Day bowl game. Following the loss to Northwestern, Minnesota faltered badly down the stretch. Quarterback Adam Weber was forced to throw 51 times in their 24-17 loss. With new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch dismantling most of the spread sets the Gophers ran out of last season, expect a much more balanced attack Saturday.
Senior wide receiver Eric Decker is questionable for the game with a high ankle sprain. He leads the Gophers with 27 catches for 415 yards through three games. Without him in the lineup the Gophers have looked lost in the past. He was injured for a majority of the latter half of the season in 2008 and the Gophers stumbled down the stretch, losing their last five games.
If Decker is unable to go, Adam Weber will have to look to unproven wideouts Brandon Green and Troy Stoudermire. The two have a combined 18 catches for 168 yards. Also, look for runningbacks Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge to play a much more important role. An intriguing scenario would be Minnesota using highly touted quarterback prospect MarQueis Gray in more sets as a wide-receiver; he has been limited to a handful of plays in the "Wildcat" formation.
When it comes down to it, Minnesota is going to have to continue to get strong play from their linebacking corps. They controlled Heisman candidate Jahvid Best for most of the second and third quarters last week, allowing their offense to tie the game 21-21 heading into the fourth quarter.
It will take efforts on both sides of the ball to defeat Northwestern on the road. Look for heavy running attack this week with the status of Eric Decker uncertain combined with Northwestern allowing near 300 rushing yards combined in their past two games. (Syracuse and Eastern Michigan). If the Gophers have any hopes of entertaining an invite to a New Year's Day Bowl game in January, this is a "must-win".