FACTS & STATS: Site: Ryan Field (47,130) -- Evanston, Illinois. Television: ESPN2. Home Record: Minnesota 3-1, NU 3-1. Away Record: Minnesota 1-1, NU 1-1. Neutral Record: Minnesota 0-0, NU 0-0. Conference Record: Minnesota 0-2, NU 0-2. Series: Minnesota leads, 50-33-5.
GAME NOTES: A pair of teams both in search of their respective first Big Ten Conference victory of the season will meet up on Saturday afternoon, as the Northwestern Wildcats host the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Ryan Field.
Minnesota will be without head coach Jerry Kill, who announced last Thursday that he is taking time away from the team to focus on his epilepsy treatment, having suffered five seizure-related episodes since taking the job at Minnesota in 2011. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys took over as acting head coach on Oct. 5 at No. 19 Michigan, where the Golden Gophers suffered a 42-13 loss.
Northwestern began the season 4-0 but has since lost two straight. A week after falling to fourth-ranked Ohio State in a 40-30 final, the Wildcats were tripped up at No. 25 Wisconsin this past Saturday, 35-6. This week's contest is their first in Legends Division play.
Northwestern has won the last three head-to-head meetings, although the Gophers still lead the all-time series, 50-33-5.
Minnesota's offense is predicated on the ground game, which has really been the program's identity over the years. The Gophers enter the weekend ranked 25th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 215.8 yards per tilt. However, after averaging 42 points over their first four games, they have totaled only 20 points in the last two outings. Quarterback Mitch Leidner accounted for 66 of the team's 136 rushing yards in the loss to Michigan, as Minnesota averaged a mere 3.3 yards per tote. In the passing game, Leidner was 14-of-21 for 145 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The TD went to redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams, whose two scores on the season pace all Gophers receivers.
Minnesota also has some work to do defensively after allowing Michigan to convert 10-of-13 third downs and score touchdowns on all five of its trips inside the red zone. The latter statistic came as a bit of a shock to a unit that entered the game ranked eighth nationally in red zone defense. The Wolverines accumulated only 17 first downs and 348 yards of total offense, but they were remarkably efficient in putting points on the board. Quarterback Devin Gardner completed 13-of-17 passes for 235 yards despite not throwing a pass until midway through the second quarter, and he accounted for two touchdowns. Fitzgerald Toussaint ran for 78 yards on 17 carries against the Gophers defense and scored twice.
The Gophers will face another stiff test against a Northwestern team that leads the Big Ten in red zone efficiency, having scored on 25-of-26 trips inside the 20. The Wildcats have deployed two quarterbacks on a weekly basis, with the more mobile Kain Colter earning slightly more snaps than pocket passer Trevor Siemian. But in the lopsided loss to Wisconsin, Colter completed only 4-of-5 passes for 34 yards and an interception. He was sacked twice and ran for only 10 yards. Siemian attempted 34 passes, but completed only 13 of them, as he finished with 163 yards, while taking five sacks. The offensive line did not create much room in the running game either, as the Wildcats managed only 44 rushing yards and a team net average of 1.8 yards per carry.
Defensively, NU allowed Wisconsin's Joel Stave to throw three touchdown passes while two Badgers rushers went over 100 yards on the ground. As a team, Wisconsin gashed the Wildcats defense for an average of 5.6 yards per carry. However, the 'Cats did come up with three takeaways, continuing a trend that dates back to last season. The unit ranks among the best in the country in takeaways, and the team's 13 interceptions at the midway point of the season is already equal to last year's total. Chi Chi Ariguzo leads the way with 52 tackles to go along with two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Ibraheim Campbell is among the national leaders with four picks, while Collin Ellis and Dean Lowry each have two.
If there ever were a recipe for Minnesota to stick to the ground game, it would be here against the Wildcats and their opportunistic secondary. The Gophers are capable of pulling off the road win, but they'll need to re- discover their success defending the red zone.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Minnesota 27, Northwestern 24
Saturday, October 19, 12 p.m. (et)