This isn't how it was supposed to be. Minnesota was supposed to be the division front-runner, touting its gritty style of play as the reason you should believe in them as contenders. Northwestern was supposed to be the young, unorganized team without an identity, fighting to stay out of the Big Ten basement.
So much for what was supposed to happen.
Minnesota comes to Evansville as a team whose best game of the season so far came in a losing effort against TCU. Since then, the Gophers have won three straight nail-biters against teams from the Group of 5.
Northwestern, on the other hand, has what might be the two best wins by any Big Ten team under its belt. The Wildcats took down Stanford at home, the went to Duke two weeks later and knocked off the Blue Devils. The results of those game were the catalyst that launched the Wildcats firmly into the AP Top 25 &mdash ranked higher than any other Big Ten West team at this point.
College Football Podcast: Week 5 Preview with Andy Staples
Minnesota at Northwestern
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Spread: Northwestern -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Justin Jackson run on the Gopher defense?
Jackson is a budding star in the Big Ten and the cornerstone of what the Wildcats do on offense. He's averaging nearly 130 yards per outing, controlling the tempo and keeping the Northwestern defense well rested. Minnesota is a middle-of-the-road team against the run nationally, allowing 151.3 yards per game. If Jackson can find room to run against the Gophers, it'll give a Minnesota offense that already struggles to score even less time to put points up.
2. Can Minnesota take the lead early?
If Minnesota can get out to a fast start, it could force Northwestern to abandon the running attack early in order to stay in the game. This would play right into what Jerry Kill wants to do, as his defensive unit is one of the best in the country at shutting down the pass. Two quick score — preferably by way of long, clock-killing drives — could be all that's needed for the Gophers to sit back and play their game until the clock runs out.
3. Is Shannon Brooks the playmaker Minnesota has been desperately looking for?
Brooks made his collegiate debut against Ohio last week, rushing for 82 yards and two scores on just ten carries. If he can continue that into the game against Northwestern early on, it could be enough to open things up in the secondary for Mitch Leidner. Brooks's presence alone is going to draw attention early on. If he can prove that last week was no fluke, it would certainly impact this game and the rest of the Big Ten season moving forward.
Northwestern has been tested twice this season by two teams that are more balanced and arguably more talented than Minnesota. They came out on top in both games, due in large part to Jackson, quarterback Clayton Thorson's leadership and resiliency, and Pat Fitzgerald convincing his team that they are good enough to win every game. The tangibles are all on Minnesota's side — mostly on defense. Unfortunately for the Gophers, Northwestern is a confident team that matches up well with what Minnesota wants to do on both sides of the ball. For that reason, I give the edge to the Wildcats in a higher scoring game than expected.