Heading into Saturday’s contest, the Minnesota Golden Gophers had a pretty good idea that running back Justin Jackson was going to be a focal point of No.23 Northwestern’s potent, yet balanced offensive attack.
What wasn’t thought to be a focal point of the game was the weather.
It wasn’t only a focal point of the game, but a crucial game changer.
Despite a winter storm turning the rain to snow, the Wildcats mauled the Gophers (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) for nearly 250 yards on the ground in a 39-0 shutout win Saturday at Ryan Field. The win marks the first time that Northwestern has won six-straight games.
The weather played a key factor for both teams early on as rains pounded the grass at Ryan Field. There was also a strong wind that greatly affected the field position battle. When going with the wind, the Gophers were able to limit the Wildcats’ offense by pinning them back. However, once the second quarter changed field direction, it also affected Minnesota’s ability to switch field position. Northwestern exploded for 25 points in the quarter with all of thier drives starting to Gophers’ territory.
Return of the run stopping woes
Just a week removed from holding the Nebraska Cornhuskers to 69 yards rushing in a win, Minnesota simply didn’t have an answer for the Wildcats’ power running game.
Facing the elements, Northwestern operated out of a bevy of formations that featured more than just a fullback and a tight end. There were numerous formations that featured two tight end sets to either side of the tackles or “married” tight end that would follow each other when put in motion. The Wildcats also operated with a few wing set formations. No matter the formation, it was all about getting the line to move in space.
Guard/tackle counter, power and wham were the centerpiece for the Wildcats running game. In fact, a vast majority of the runs that Northwestern were able to break loose for big gains came when there was some sort of pull or kick out block.
Needing just 27 yards to reach an impressive career milestone, Jackson was a senior on a mission. Toting the ball 36 times for 166 yards, Jackson became just the sixth running back in Big Ten history to eclipse 5,000 career rushing yards. The 41-yard burst came off of a fixture of the offense Saturday.
In the second half, Jackson would make Big Ten history again, being the second player in conference history to reach for 1,000 in four-straight seasons. Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne was the first player to reach the milestone. For the game, Northwestern rushed for 277 yards in the win.
After rumbling for nearly 400 yards rushing in the win just a week ago, nothing seemed to go right for the Gophers offense. Whether it was footing or just the power of the Wildcats front, Minnesota struggled mightily to reestablish the line of scrimmage. It looked as if for a moment the Gophers may have been off on the right track, with quarterback Demry Croft completing his first two attempts of the game – one on the first play going for 36 yards. However, after those two plays on the opening drive, there was nothing going for the Gophers offense.
Coming into the game, Northwestern rarely showed line stunts or twists. Saturday, the Wildcats ran a bevy of line stunts. Of the three sacks in the first half, all came from having stunts up front that flustered the interior of the Gophers front.
One surprise was that the read option was near extinct. Now, it could have been thrown out after a winter storm started to threaten the area, or it could have been a simple game plan adjustment. Either way, after Croft’s success just a week ago, it’s tough to not justify running the option.
Turnovers didn’t help the cause for the Gophers Saturday either. Five total turnovers, with the Wildcats capitalizing off of each of them. In the first half, Northwestern scored 12 points off turnovers to mount a 19-0 lead. Croft was also sacked multiple times which proved to be drive killers. Croft finished the contest, 2-for-11 for 43 yards and three interceptions.
A few notables from Saturday’s contest was that the offense was without wide receiver Tyler Johnson and running back Shannon Brooks. Jared Weyler, the team’s starting center was also out of the contest.
With Top 10 ranked Wisconsin coming to TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 25, the struggles in stopping the run will have to be addressed if the Gophers hope to fend off a possible second-straight blowout loss and keep thier bowl hopes alive.
- 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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