Northwestern Football Preview: Cats Get Golden Opportunity vs. Minnesota Gophers

Jonathan HodgesCorrespondent ISeptember 23, 2009

EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Mike Kafka #13 of the Northwestern Wildcats passes against of the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ryan Stadium on November 8, 2008 in Evanston, Illinois  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The Northwestern (2-1, 0-0) Wildcats will head back to Ryan Field this Saturday to face Minnesota (2-1, 0-0) in the Big Ten conference play opener for both teams just a week after both squads sustained their first losses of the 2009 season.  Northwestern lost a heartbreaker at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse by a final score of 37-34, while the Gophers were defeated at home by a top 10 California squad that featured Heisman candidate running back Jahvid Best (who accounted for all five of Cal's touchdowns on the day).

Both teams are looking to rebound and to start the Big Ten slate on a positive note, and given the recent history in the series (NU's "walk off" interception return for the win in 2008 and the 'Cats' double-overtime win in 2007), this figures to be a close game.  The most interesting matchup of the day will likely be the Northwestern defense, who have been burned multiple times over the past two weeks, versus the Minnesota offense who are managing to score just 21.3 points per game.  Both of those units entered the season with high expectations and have failed to perform up to par so far, but something has to give this week.

An obvious comparison between Northwestern and Minnesota is that both teams played very close games versus Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in the first three weeks of the 2009 season, and both games were decided by a late interception and ended with three point margins of victory.  In NU's case, of course, that was a Mike Kafka interception that set up the Orange's game-winning field goal.  Minnesota, meanwhile, benefited from a Greg Paulus interception in overtime that allowed them to kick their game-winning field goal on their possession in OT.
To say that this series has been close is an understatement, as the teams have split the last 10 meetings, and six of those games were decided by a touchdown or less.  The Wildcats are riding a two game winning streak against the Gophers thanks to those aforementioned down to the wire wins the past two seasons, but Minnesota is looking to build on its seven-win season last year and is also seeking revenge for their loss to NU in '08 (which sent them on a five-game losing streak to end the year).

Although Minnesota's defense got burned by Cal last week, they played well through the first two games and were basically responsible for the Gophers' first two wins of 2009.  That interception of Syracuse's Paulus essentially secured a win in week one, while linebacker Nate Triplett's fumble return for a touchdown essentially secured a win versus Air Force in the debut of the new TCF Bank Stadium.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats' offense finally hit their stride as they opened up the playbook in a 466 yard effort versus Syracuse that had QB Mike Kafka completing over 83 percent of his passes along with three touchdown passes (he also ran for one and caught one).  The NU running game, which had been averaging 203 yards per game through two weeks, was basically abandoned as the 'Cats took to the air to move the ball against the Orange.

This game looks to be close and should be entertaining as the Wildcats and Gophers tangle to determine the path of their respective seasons.  Although it's only the fourth week of the season, this game will go a long way in determining positioning in the middle of a crowded Big Ten pack.

Line: Northwestern by 2.5.

Who Should Win

Toss-up.  The oddsmakers are basically giving NU the nod thanks to home field advantage, and this game will likely be decided based on the matchup between a struggling Minnesota offense and a banged-up Northwestern defense that has been banged around the past two games.  As mentioned previously, based on the way this series has gone, it looks to be a close matchup.

Upset Factor

If the game is a toss-up, is there really an upset factor?  If Minnesota finds a way to contain NU's passing attack, the 'Cats will likely be in trouble, as they haven't been able to get any ground game going against defenses with a pulse.  Meanwhile, if Northwestern's defense wakes up from its early season funk, they could put an already struggling Gopher offense in a bind.  There are really more questions than answers in this game, and whichever unit gets their act together first can make a huge impact on the result.

What to Look For

Northwestern Offense / Minnesota Defense

Northwestern's offense finally showed itself against Syracuse, and it looks pretty darn good.  Despite running more than twice as often as it passed in the first two games, the passing offense ranks 17th nationally, averaging 278.7 yards per game, with its quarterback, Mike Kafka, completing over 74 percent of his passes for 740 yards and three TDs (with most of the production coming in the 'Cats third game).

The question is does the NU offense need to be balanced, with a running game, to be effective in Big Ten play?  NU attempted just 13 rushes from its running backs against Syracuse (they averaged just under four yards per carry), although NU admittedly did have their first string RB, Stephen Simmons, out due to injury.

In the Syracuse game, Mike Kafka was most effective when getting rid of the ball quickly.  He was sacked five times, losing a fumble on two of those sacks, and also threw an interception that ended up being the deciding factor in the game after staying in the collapsing pocket a little too long or being too hesitant on his throws.  If he can deliver the ball quickly and accurately, he can get close to replicating the 16 consecutive completions he had to start the Syracuse game (a Northwestern record).

Meanwhile, the Minnesota defense has done enough to win a couple of games, although they did get burned by one of the nation's best running backs last week (Cal's Best).  LB Nate Triplett is the guy to watch: He's the team leader with 36 tackles, has the Gophers' only interception, and had the aforementioned fumble return for TD against Air Force.

Minnesota also has some pretty good cornerbacks, including Traye Simmons, who returned a Kafka interception for a touchdown last year and has three pass breakups already this season.  Their junior safety combination of Kyle Theret and Kim Royston are also talented and will be looking to repeat Minnesota's ball-hawking ways of a season ago when the team ranked 11th nationally with 31 takeaways.

This year, though, the Gophers have been an average defense, especially against the pass (82nd nationally in pass efficiency defense), and that despite having faced run-happy Air Force already.  Minnesota is also allowing an average of 3.6 yards per carry on the ground, although it would be surprising to see NU abandon the pass as its primary method to move the ball after last week's results.

Northwestern Defense / Minnesota Offense

Now this will be an interesting matchup.  The 'Cats' D, expected to be one of the best units on that side of the ball in recent NU history, has fallen short of that goal, especially over the last six quarters of play.  The NU defense has allowed an average of 25 points per game and is in the middle of the pack nationally in terms of yards allowed, giving up an average of 332 yards per game (and that's with the week one thrashing of Towson in the mix).

The Northwestern defense finally got some kind of pass rush going against Syracuse, racking up four sacks, but is still a shell of its former self and allowed the Orange to rack up 471 total yards of offense.  The D gave up big plays, especially to top-flight WR Mike Williams, and the banged-up secondary had to resort to second and third stringers who just couldn't keep up in the defensive backfield.

Not to mention the fact that NU seemingly can't stop anyone from running the ball, starting with EMU and continuing into the Syracuse game.  With the sack numbers removed, the 'Cats are allowing 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, and allowed almost 5.5 yards per attempt last week.  Minnesota is likely salivating over this, as they've seen their running game fizzle over the first three games (they have averaged just 3.3 yards per attempt this year).

Minnesota's offense is in the midst of a transition from the spread (run by former NU OC Mike Dunbar) to a more traditional pro-style set, although don't expect that to slow down the QB Adam Weber to WR Eric Decker battery.  Decker ranks third nationally in receiving yards (138.3 per game), and is a likely future NFL player.  He has 2,776 yards on his career to go with 21 receiving touchdowns.  Oh, and he threw a TD pass to backup QB MarQueis Gray last week, too.

Northwestern's D had some trouble with misdirection against Syracuse last week and they will likely see a lot more against the Gophers, who try to utilize the Weber/Decker/Gray trio in as many different ways as possible.  Gray has a lot of talent, but Weber is the proven leader of this squad and just loves to get the ball to his roommate, Decker, early and often.  And NU better not forget about WR Troy Stoudermire, who is very fast (he also handles kick returns) and is dangerous in space.

Although RB Duane Bennett returned from a knee injury that kept him out for all of last season, the Gophers haven't been able to get a lot going from the ground game.  Bennett will split carries with DeLeon Eskridge, and together they are averaging 4.3 yards per carry.  Expect to see some runs early as Minnesota tries to loosen up the 'Cats' defense.

Special Teams

Both teams feature a placekicker who has booted a game-winning field goal so far this season.  NU's Stefan Demos is 3-of-3 on field goals and has missed one of his 13 extra point attempts (which came last week), and his game winner was against Eastern Michigan in week two.  Minnesota's Eric Ellestad has hit 5-of-6 field goal attempts and all of his seven extra point tries, with his game winner coming in their week one win over Syracuse in overtime.

Minnesota is dangerous in the return game, averaging 26.7 yards per kickoff return thanks to Stoudermire's efforts (24th nationally), and 11.7 yards per punt return (albeit on a limited data set of just three returns in '09).  The Wildcats have allowed some long kickoff returns in each of the past three games and must be very careful on their coverage to ensure Minnesota doesn't break one.  On punts, meanwhile, NU has allowed zero return yards this year (although opponents have only attempted two returns this season).

On the other hand, the 'Cats have been anything but impressive in the return game.  Northwestern ranks well in the bottom half nationally both on kick returns (21 yards per return) and punt returns (4.2 yards per return).  Fitz will try to shake things up a bit this week by putting Jeravin Matthews and Arby Fields back on kickoff return duty (Matthews is returning from an ankle injury sustained in week one of the season).

In a close game, expect special teams to play a role (it has in each of the 'Cats' last two games), and hopefully NU will use this phase to put itself in a position to win the game.

Miscellaneous Notes

Attendance: Northwestern will look to eclipse 20,000 for the first time in 2009, which they will hopefully be able to do with the undergraduate students back on campus and the fact that NU will be facing a Big Ten opponent.  Attendance later this season may depend on the outcome of this game, though.

Third Down Conversions: The Wildcats rank seventh nationally in third down conversion rate at 57.5 percent, and are 13th nationally in third down conversion percentage defense, allowing opponents to convert just 25.7 percent of their third downs (in fact, opponents have converted just nine on the year).  Meanwhile, Minnesota's defense is allowing a 42.7 percent conversion rate while converting a paltry 32.5 percent on offense.  Although, as NU learned last week, big plays on first and second downs can make those numbers meaningless.

Spread Offense: NU takes the meaning of spread literally, as they have truly spread the ball around, with 12 different players hauling in a reception this season (including QB Mike Kafka).  As a point of comparison, no Wildcat receiver has caught more than 20 percent of NU's completions, while Minnesota's Decker has accounted for over 44 percent of their receptions this year.

Running Back by Committee: The Wildcats have five players with double digit carries on the year (nine who have at least one), with nobody accounting for more than 24 percent of NU's rushing attempts on the year.  With original starter Stephen Simmons still sidelined with an injury, former walkon sophomore Jacob Schmidt and true freshman Arby Fields will take on the running duties this week.

Non-Starter Quarterbacks' Passing: For NU passers not named Kafka, it's been feast or famine.  Dan Persa and Andrew Brewer have combined to go 2-of-3 for 96 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.  Coincidentally, the two receptions were by Brewer (from Persa) and Kafka (from Brewer).  All NU needs now is some kind of Kafka to Persa connection to complete the triangle.

Injury Report

Northwestern: RB Alex Daniel (ankle, out for season), LB David Arnold (leg, out), CB Justan Vaughn (leg, out), WR Sidney Stewart (abdomen, out), RB Stephen Simmons (leg, out), RB Jeravin Matthews (ankle, probable), CB Sherrick McManis (hamstring, probable), LB Nate Williams (unknown, probable).

Northwestern's injury report is based on observations from last week's game and the depth chart released on Monday.  The official injury report is released on Thursday, although the actual status isn't really known until the 'Cats take the field each Saturday.  Last week, multiple players listed as questionable (McManis, Simmons, Matthews, and Vaughn) either didn't suit up or even make the trip, while another (Williams) was a surprise gameday scratch.

It seems likely that McManis, Matthews, and Williams will return this week (all are listed as starters on the depth chart), while Simmons, Stewart, and Vaughn are all expected to be out (none of those three are listed on the two deep).  Conspicuously absent from the two deep is DT Adam Hahn, who was held out of the first two games after an offseason foot injury, although he played a good amount against Syracuse.

The fact is that the Wildcats need McManis back on the field to match up with Decker, and seeing Williams back on the field would be a boost.  Matthews' return would give the RB position another option, as he has good speed, and could also be a boost to kickoff returns (where he's listed this week as a starter).

Minnesota: S Mike Rallis (broken leg, out for season), P Dan Orseske (illness, out), WR Eric Decker (ankle, probable), CB Marcus Sherels (ankle, probable), DE Derrick Onwuachi (knee, questionable).

The Gophers' backfield is also a bit banged up, with Rallis going down for the year against Cal; they were already thin at safety with Tramaine Brock (a starter last season) held out for the year due to academic issues.  Sherels is expected to return after an ankle injury earlier in the year, which could be a boost.

Punter Orseske isn't expected to play, with placekicker Ellestad taking care of those duties (much like NU's Demos taking care of all kicking duties for the 'Cats).  DE Onwuachi was expected to return last week but was held out; he may return against NU to boost the DL rotation.

Finally, all-conference WR Decker got banged up against Cal with an ankle injury but came back in the game (much like he did last year against NU).  Expect him to be on the field, and as long as he's out there, he's a threat.


Northwestern 31 - Minnesota 27

Expect a very tight game that will likely be decided near the end of the game, but one in which the Wildcats prevail.  Northwestern hasn't lost back-to-back games since October/November 2007, and Coach Fitz will have this team prepared to respond to last week's loss by going out and executing, particularly on defense.  If McManis and Williams can indeed go for the 'Cats, the D will look much improved over last week.

Minnesota won't go away quietly, and Decker will get his catches, but NU has the ability to pull out a win here.  The Gophers' defense hasn't exactly shut anyone down, and after showing off last week, expect Kafka to lead the Wildcat offense to multiple scores.  This should be a fun game, just as it has been the past two years, so just relax and enjoy a good college football game.

Go 'Cats!!!

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