The Wildcats are 4-0 heading into Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Minnesota. Jerry Kill’s Gophers enter conference play at 3-1, with their only loss on opening night against TCU. Can the Wildcats win their first league game for the second straight year? Here’s what our broadcasters think:
Nick Scoliard (@NickScols): Northwestern 24, Minnesota 10
Northwestern wasn’t able to escape their non-conference games without injuries. However, Minnesota has struggled so far in their non-conference schedule, barely beating Kent State and Miami (Ohio), and needing overtime to put Colorado State away. Northwestern should be able to contain Mitch Leidner and the Golden Gophers, even with injuries.
Player to Watch: Tommy Doles, OL, Northwestern. It’s unclear as of this writing if Geoff Mogus will play, but if he doesn’t, Tommy Doles will be stepping up to fill his shoes at left tackle. With Thorson’s issues under pressure, a bad performance from Doles could lead to the ‘Cats’ first loss.
Zach Pereles (@zach_pereles): Northwestern 10, Minnesota 9
Yes, I think this is going to be the score, and yes I think Northwestern will win it on a Jack Mitchell field goal as time expires, because he’s a fantastic clutch kicker. Northwestern’s defense has been tough in the red zone, I haven’t been overly impressed with Minnesota, and both teams don’t have great offenses. Northwestern’s defense gives them the slight edge.
Player to Watch: Drew Wolitarsky, WR, Minnesota. Wolitarsky, the leading wide receiver yardage-wise for the Golden Gophers, stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 218 pounds. Jordan Williams of Ball State, who at times dominated the ‘Cats on Saturday night, stands the same height and is just 10 pounds heavier. Will Nick VanHoose and/or Matt Harris be able to control the lanky foe?
Jesse Kirsch (@JesseRKirsch) Northwestern 17, Minnesota 14
Northwestern is hurting and will need to dig deep, but they have momentum and a home game to help nudge past the Gophers.
Player to watch: Solomon Vault, RB, Northwestern. Vault has been a good secondary runner for the Wildcats, but he stalled in last week’s match-up. Look for him to make the most of his carries against Minnesota.
Tim Balk (@timbalk): NU 17, Minnesota 6
This is a totally manageable conference opener for Northwestern against a Minnesota team that has looked shaky the last couple weeks. As long as the ‘Cats’ offense protects the ball, NU should be 5-0 going into their huge roadie at Michigan.
Player to watch: Hunter Niswander, P, Northwestern. The sophomore has punted the ball 15 times the last two weeks. In a game where offense likely will be at a premium and field position could be key, a big day from Niswander would be a boost.
Ari Ross (@aross50): Northwestern 13, Minnesota 9
This is going to be an ugly game. Neither team has the offensive firepower to put up a whole lot of points, so it’s going to come down to which team can limit their mistakes. If Thorson can stay turnover-free and the ‘Cats can control the game with their rushing attack, Northwestern could come away with a win in their first Big Ten matchup. Whichever team scores 10 points first might win this game.
Player to Watch: Terrance Brown, S, Northwestern: If Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro both miss Saturday’s game, Brown will start at safety. With Minnesota looking to take advantage, how Brown plays might determine the outcome of the game.
Erik Bremer (@Erik_Bremer): Northwestern 20, Minnesota 16
Minnesota and Northwestern might have the two best defenses in the Big Ten West, but they also have issues on the offensive side of the ball. Northwestern’s ability to break off big plays in recent weeks gives them a slight edge.
Player to watch: Mitch Leidner, QB, Minnesota. The Golden Gophers’ embattled quarterback doesn’t do anything particularly well, but he’s come up big late in the game. It’ll be interesting to see how he elevates his play if the Gophers need another two-minute drive to win on Saturday.
Jason Dorow (@jasondorow): Northwestern 20, Minnesota 16
Northwestern may have suffered a bunch of injuries Saturday, but Minnesota is even more banged up. Clayton Thorson will take advantage of a depleted secondary, and the Wildcats will start off the Big Ten slate with a W.
Player to watch: Brown. There is a good chance the third-string safety will get the start Saturday, and NU cannot afford to get beaten in coverage in what should be a low-scoring game.
Ben Goren (@BenG412): Game Broadcaster
Two very unhealthy teams with very bad offenses are playing a very important game. Points will be at a premium.
Player to Watch: Drew Smith, LB, Northwestern. Smith and Jaylen Prater are going to be chiefly responsible for containing Mitch Leidner in the running game. If Leidner hurts NU with his legs, the Wildcats are going to be in trouble.
Ian McCafferty (@Itmccaf52): Northwestern 23, Minnesota 17
Even though Northwestern’s defense looked a little soft against Ball State and suffered some injuries, Minnesota’s offense isn’t very good. The defense does just enough, and the ever-improving offense puts up enough points to win.
Player to Watch: Doles. At this point in the week it’s pretty clear that Geoff Mogus won’t play or at least he won’t be 100% if he does. That means that young Tommy Doles will have to step in to protect Clayton Thorson’s blindside. The outcome of this game might very well hinge on the quality of Doles’ play.
Ryan Fish (@RyanMFish): Northwestern 17, Minnesota 13
Northwestern has offensive issues and injury concerns, but Minnesota does as well. The ‘Cats already have three scrappy wins this season, so why not another one?
Player to watch: Traveon Henry, Safety, Northwestern. With Kyle Quiero out and Godwin Igwebuike hurting (and possibly out), Henry must lead the secondary. Limiting big plays will be key.
Austin Miller (@austin_james906): Northwestern 16, Minnesota 10
Everyone thinks that this will be a defensive battle, and as much as the contrarian in me wants to say that it won’t be, I have a reputation for near-perfect predictions to uphold. Both teams will struggle, Clayton Thorson will look like a competent quarterback a bit more often than Mitch Leidner does, and Northwestern will win an ugly game.
Player to Watch: Leidner. His position on the Minnesota team requires him to throw a football. If Leidner can complete anything longer than check-downs and swing passes, the Gophers will win. If he can’t, Northwestern will load the box and happily watch as Leidner repeatedly uncorks things that can best be described as “wobbly arm punts.”
Amit Mallik (@Upper90Shot): Northwestern 17, Minnesota 9
The Northwestern defense steps up again in a gritty affair. The offense only scores touchdowns off of turnovers.
Player to watch: Godwin Igwebuike, Saftey, Northwestern. If he’s at full speed coming off an injury against Ball State, he might have an interception or two against a shaky Minnesota offense.
Adam Braunstein: Northwestern 24, Minnesota 14.
Despite being winners of three straight, the Gophers have barely beaten very weak teams. On the road vs. number 16 in the nation is a big step up in terms of competition level; the Gophers will not handle it well.
Player to watch: Wolitarsky. Last week, Ball State was able to take advantage of some holes in the NU secondary, and for the Gophers to pull off the upset, Wolitarsky will have to do the same.
Robbie Belson: Northwestern 31, Minnesota 16
The Golden Gophers start out strong, scoring early in the first quarter after a couple shaky possessions by the ‘Cats’ offense, but the ‘Cats rally in the second half, score 17 unanswered points, and get the W.
Players to Watch: Dan Vitale and Warren Long, Northwestern. Expect Vitale to continue getting a lot of touches this week and Long to get some extra carries and break out for long runs.
Max Gelman (@MaxGelman): Northwestern 10, Minnesota 9
This game is going to be miserable to watch since both teams are great on defense but offensively challenged. It almost reminds me of the NU-Michigan game last year, so much so that I think the score will be the same.
Player to watch: Warren Long, RB, Northwestern. Long has stayed relevant in the running game all year playing behind Justin Jackson, ripping off big runs with ease. Third downs will be critical in a low scoring game and Long should thrive.
Michael Stern (@michaeljstern23): Northwestern 19, Minnesota 17
Northwestern has lost to the Gophers the last two years, and both times finished the game with 17 points. This year, it’s the Gophers that are stuck on 17, as Northwestern struggles to get touchdowns in the red zone but rides Jack Mitchell’s leg to a victory.
Player to watch: Jalen Myrick, KR, Minnesota. The ‘Cats outplayed Minnesota last year, but Myrick returned a kickoff for the game-winning score. Northwestern can’t let him get loose again this year.