By Kevin Sweeney
Year one of the PJ Fleck era in the Twin Cities didn’t quite live up to expectations, as the former Western Michigan head coach known for his incredibly positive personality and slogans about “rowing the boat” failed to lead the Golden Gophers to a bowl game for the first time since the 2011 season. Taking over for Tracy Claeys in the wake of a sexual assault scandal and ensuing team boycott, Fleck’s staff didn’t have much time to bring in his players or implement his culture. However, with a strong incoming 25-man class that ranks seventh in the Big Ten (Minnesota’s best Big Ten ranking since 2008), Fleck appears to be on a similar trajectory to what he did in Kalamazoo, where he turned a pushover into a Cotton Bowl participant in just 4 years. Finding a quarterback to build around remains priority number one, but with returning talent at the skill positions and a playmaking defense, a bowl game should be the target in year two of the Fleck era.
Minnesota Offense vs Northwestern Defense
Perhaps no power conference program has a worse on-paper quarterback situation than Minnesota. Fleck announced this week that true freshman walk-on Zack Annexstad would start at quarterback over a trio of redshirt freshmen headlined by previously projected starter Tanner Morgan. Without a single QB with FBS experience following the transfer of Denny Croft and the graduation of Conor Rhoda, Fleck was forced to get creative and will do so with Annexstad, whose experience at prep powerhouse IMG Academy where he split reps with Rutgers signee Artur Sitkowski makes him far from your traditional walk-on. In Annexstad’s favor is a strong offensive line and one of the Big Ten’s best running backs in Rodney Smith. Still, dealing with the rigors of the Big Ten as a true freshman is a massive challenge for even the most well-regarded recruits, and Annexstad’s lack of Power 5 offers despite tons of exposure should signal Gopher fans to greatly temper their expectations. With so many questions at the quarterback spot, it’s difficult to truly project how the Minnesota offense will look by the time Northwestern travels to Minneapolis in mid-November. The Wildcat defense thoroughly smothered Minnesota in their trip to Ryan Field this past season, and more of the same should be the preseason prognosis. Minnesota simply doesn’t have the quarterback play to attack the weak link of Northwestern’s defense, the secondary. Allowing the Wildcats to load the box with its fearsome front seven is a bad recipe for opposing offenses, but that is what Minnesota may be forced into doing. The biggest challenge for Northwestern should be dealing with Smith, who amassed more than a thousand yards from scrimmage last season and also ran back a kick for a touchdown. He should expect to see an even bigger workload this season as the Gophers look for any way to produce offense.
Minnesota Defense vs Northwestern Offense
Headlining the Golden Gopher defense is junior linebacker Thomas Barber, a tackling machine and overall playmaker who should contend for all-Big Ten honors. He’ll spearhead a defense that conceded just under 23 points per game but was much less sturdy during conference play, in which they allowed 30 or more points in six of nine games. It’s always difficult for a defense when the offense can’t stay on the field and turns the ball over, and perhaps the biggest area in which this Minnesota defense could improve would be by getting some help from the offense. However, it seems unlikely that we’ll see much improvement on the offensive side of the ball, so the Golden Gopher defense will once again be relied upon to keep their team in games. An experienced secondary led by safety Jacob Huff should pose some challenges for a Northwestern offense that failed to stretch defenses vertically last season, and the always-questionable Minnesota weather should only make matters worse for the Wildcat passing game. Northwestern will have to control tempo, win in the trenches, and hope Clayton Thorson can make enough throws to win it.
Smith has shown he can make plays in the return game, but the kicking game could cause some problems for Minnesota. Senior kicker Emmit Carpenter was solid on extra points but took a step back on field goals after a terrific sophomore campaign. Ryan Santoso will need to be replaced at the punter position after graduating this spring.
These are the types of games that Northwestern has to win if it has Big Ten West title aspirations. Minnesota’s overall talent level should increase in year two under Fleck, but the massive hole at the quarterback position will make life incredibly difficult on the offensive side of the ball. Should Annexstad provide at least competent quarterback play, Minnesota will be a tough out and should expect to play a lot of close games. In the end, Northwestern should find a way to win this one, despite potentially dealing with difficult weather conditions and a strong home crowd in Minneapolis.