Perhaps it’s ironic that a Northwestern team which dug itself a hole in early September can clinch bowl eligibility for the seventh time in Pat Fitzgerald’s 11-year tenure at NU with a win against the Minnesota Golden Gophers Saturday.
After losing games as significant home favorites against Western Michigan and Illinois State to open the 2016 season, the Wildcats (5-5, 4-3 B1G) have rattled off five wins in their last eight games, including three wins in four road contests.
And with an anything-can-happen rivalry game against Illinois looming next weekend and bowl game quality on the line, Saturday’s match up with the Gophers may be more important than a first glance reveals.
Minnesota (7-3, 4-3 B1G) enters Saturday’s Big Ten West showdown with only three losses, but the Gophers have the third-weakest schedule in the Big Ten, only bettering Purdue and Rutgers.
Tracy Claeys’ offense is a rush-first attack, averaging 210.3 rushing yards per game. Redshirt sophomore Rodney Smith has a team-high 14 touchdowns and averages more than 100 rushing yards per game.
Mitch Leidner leads a questionable-at-best Gophers’ passing attack. The senior, who will be making his final start at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday, is averaging just over 187 passing yards per game and has thrown two more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5).
Northwestern, which began the season with a run-first offense, has quickly developed one of the nation’s top passing attacks.
Clayton Thorson will look to follow up a career day last week at Purdue in which he threw for three touchdowns and a career high 353 yards on Saturday. Thorson has thrown for over 250 yards per game this season and 19 touchdowns.
Twelve of those 19 touchdowns have been thrown to Austin Carr, who tied the Northwestern single-season record for touchdown receptions by catching his 11th and 12th of the season last week in West Lafayette. Carr leads the Big Ten in receptions (75), receiving yards (1102), yards per game (110.2), receptions per game (7.5), and touchdowns (12).
On paper, both Northwestern and Minnesota’s defenses are similarly mediocre. The ‘Cats give up 405.7 yards per game, while the Gophers relinquish 350.7 yards per game.
Kickoff Saturday is slated for 2:30 p.m. CST. Jason Dorow and Will Greer will have the call from Minneapolis, with the Wildcat Pregame Show beginning at 1:30 p.m.