Defense has been dominant for both Minnesota and Northwestern through the non-conference portion of the schedule.
After four games, the Wildcats sit atop the Big Ten in points allowed per game with an impressive 8.8 total. While the Gophers haven’t been quite that impressive statistically, they did limit TCU, an offense averaging 51 points per game, to a 23 point total in the opening week of the season.
Both defenses have played opportunistically, displaying the dominance necessary to compete in a league that still appreciates a smash-mouth style of play. Saturday’s contest between the two foes from the West division will surely showcase two of the best defenses the Big Ten has to offer.
While defensive presence will be the topic of interest in the showdown between Minnesota and Northwestern, it will the offense that has the biggest impact on the outcome.
Two teams who have struggled to put the ball in the end zone will each be faced with its toughest task of the season. With both teams working out kinks offensively, this game only magnifies the importance of field position, ball security, and special teams.
In other words, whoever has the better field goal kicker might be the one beginning Big Ten play with a 1-0 record.
Northwestern and Minnesota rank 13th and 14th in the conference in scoring offense. The Wildcats are the worst passing team in the Big Ten. Minnesota is the worst rushing team in the conference.
Quarterbacks Clayton Thorson and Mitch Leidner have both shown glimpses of promise but neither has played with the sort of consistency necessary to elongate drives and wear down opposing defenses. Each has thrown four touchdown passes and Thorson has three interceptions compared to only two for Leidner.
Even though Minnesota has thrown the football 44 more times than Northwestern, the yards per attempt is virtually identical.
Fortunately for Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats do have one offensive advantage the Gophers can’t match. Running back Justin Jackson, who has averaged 129 yards per game in the first four contests, has proven to be one of the most effective backs in the country. Thanks in large part to his contributions, Northwestern’s rushing attack is one of the Big Ten’s best.
It will attack the one weakness that Jerry Kill has struggled to fix on his defense. Despite extreme efficiency in other aspects of game, Minnesota’s defense has allowed over 150 yards per game on the ground this year. While that statistic isn’t staggering, acknowledging that Colorado State and Kent State were able to run fairly effectively should be cause for concern.
Not to mention, the Gophers don’t have anyone to replicate Jackson’s reliability on the offensive side of the ball.
This is going to be a hard-fought, physical and defensive battle that could go a long way in determining who represents the West in Indianapolis come December. It’s an old-school football match-up that should see plenty of hard hits.
But as good as both defenses are, the outcome of Saturday’s game is going to be determined by what team can most effectively move the football. Punching it in to the end zone a time or two might be enough to record a victory.
It may even come down to which kicker has the better afternoon.