Gophers look to cool off red-hot No.23 Northwestern

When the University of Minnesota takes on No.23 Northwestern Saturday, the Gophers look to play for more than just the opportunity to essentially lock up a .500 season under first-year Head Coach P.J. Fleck.

They will be playing for their chance at a bowl game.

Sitting at 5-5, the Gophers are a mere win away from at least locking up a chance to be selected to a bowl game next month. More importantly, a win over a Top 25 team could generate enough momentum heading into a Nov. 25 showdown against No. 5 Wisconsin.

In last week’s 54-21 win over Nebraska, sophomore quarterback Demry Croft was finally the dual threat that fans have been waiting since taking over the job in the second half loss to Michigan State. Croft’s ability to slash the Huskers defense for 183 yards created more opportunity for the Gophers’ stable crop of running backs – something that was missing from the offense since he took over. It’s something that is so simple, yet so key. When operating out of an RPO-based system, it’s essential to have a quarterback who poses the threat as a runner. When defenses have to account for a dangerous runner at quarterback, it poses defenses to have to slow play and even motor down from the backside to alleviate the creation of running lanes on a read. If that doesn’t happen, the results could be devastating.

While he didn’t record a touchdown pass and completed 9-of-15 attempts, when excluding drops in his attempts, he might have had his highest completion percentage as a starter.

Defensively, the Gophers defense stymied Nebraska’s rushing attack, allowing just 69 yards in the win. It was a return to normalcy for the unit after struggling to stop the run the last few weeks. The road doesn’t get any easier, having to face both Johnathan Taylor (Wisconsin) and Northwestern’s Justin Jackson in the final two games of the year. If Minnesota wants to even have a chance at a .500 record, stopping the run will be critical.

Scouting the Wildcats

This isn’t your typical Northwestern team. But then again, when was the last time a program won three-straight overtime games?

That answer should be never.

Coming into Saturday’s contest, the Wildcats have not suffered a loss since the 31-7 loss to then No.4 Penn State on Oct.7. During thier five-game winning streak, Northwestern has averaged 29.4 points per game with much of the damage coming through the air.

Enter Clayton Thorston.

It may look like a down year for the junior when looking at his stats (2,583 yards, 11 touchdowns/11 interceptions), but don’t mistake it for a second. He can play the game effectively at a high level. In the multi-faceted offense that Northwestern operates, Thorston is the key. He has a good understanding of defenses and has often shown the ability to audible. Thorson also possess great feet in the pocket and keeps a good base under him when switching his body position while analyzing his progressions or when stepping up in the pocket to avoid pressure.

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He has displayed the arm strength to make all the throws. However, there are times where he tends to become a bit too confidence in his arm or senses pressure quickly that often results in a high-risk throw or even an interception.

Another facet to the Wildcats’ offense that makes them so tough to defend is the running game.

Justin Jackson is the school’s all-time leading rusher and might possibly be the second-most elusive back the Gophers defense will face outside of Iowa’s Akrum Wadley. The senior running back is averaging 4.1 yards a carry to go with his team-high 844 yards rushing.

The offense line doesn’t impose thier will by any means, but they have the ability to effectively stay sticky to develop potential cutback lanes. That’s where Jackson does a lot of his damage. Despite having the patience to wait until a crease opens up, the ability to stop on a dime and cut to the backside.

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What sticks out about his running style the most is that he is more capable of running in between the tackles than he may receive credit for. He has adequate size (5-Feet-11, 200 pounds) , but runs with a compact frame inside — that helps relieve some of the physical abuse taking running in between the tackles. Also a capable receiving threat out of the backfield, his “down” year has put a small damper of his draft stock this season.

Defensively, the Wildcats have been suspect throughout the course of the season in stopping the passing game. They are also pretty true as to what they are going to run, showing a vast majority of “double-high” safeties and being in off coverage. Very seldomly in a game do corners roll into a press-man look. Northwestern’s defensive unit this season allows an average 388.5 yards a game, with 278.9 yards coming through the air.

Much of the issue is the inability to get home on pressures despite recording 20 sacks this season. In fact, no player is in double-digit sacks as defensive end Joe Gaziano leads the team with six. The Wildcats bring pressure, however, much of thier rushes are pure. There are slim showings of stunts and twists in four-man pressures. With the struggles in the stopping the air attack, it could be a sign for a big day from Croft and the Gophers receiving corp.

Minnesota and Northwestern will kickoff at 11 a.m. CT from Ryan Field.



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Joshua Zimmer
Josh Zimmer is the Lead NFL Draft analyst for NGSC Sports as well as serving as a contributor for NHL coverage.
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