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Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Northwestern Wildcats Preview and Prediction

Demry Croft

Demry Croft

Winners of five straight games, the Northwestern Wildcats are flirting with a possible 10-win season for the third time under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Getting to 10 wins may be a reach as it will require the Wildcats to win their remaining two games on the regular season schedule and their bowl game, but this team has proven they have the guts to do whatever is needed to win a game no matter how long it takes. This week, the Wildcats host the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who are fresh off a blowout victory over Nebraska that has P.J. Fleck and his program thinking about rowing their boat to a bowl game.

Northwestern Wildcats RB Justin Jackson

Minnesota may need a few more paddles to get out of Evanston with a win this week, but the Gophers are certainly feeling better about themselves after last week's showing against the Cornhuskers. Can they dig in and grind out a win against steady Northwestern?

Minnesota at Northwestern

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 12 p.m. ET

TV: Big Ten Network

Spread: Northwestern -7

Three Things to Watch

1. Justin Jackson's home finale

His season may not have gone quite according to plan, but Jackson (above, right) is the Big Ten's fifth-leading rusher with 844 yards and eight touchdowns. He has played a pivotal role in the success of the Northwestern offense during the last few seasons, so it will be fitting if he can wrap up his home career in Evanston with a big day on the ground. Jackson and Northwestern hope to find the holes against the eighth-ranked rushing defense in the Big Ten. Minnesota has allowed 15 rushing touchdowns this season as well, so do not be shocked to see Jackson get to the end zone on senior day.

2. Minnesota knows how to protect the football

There are only two teams in the Big Ten who have had fewer turnovers this season than Minnesota. The Gophers have lost the football just 13 times in 10 games this year with five lost fumbles and eight interceptions. That has helped contribute to Minnesota being tied in for the second-best margin (+4) in the conference. The Wildcats, on the other hand, come into this game with a minus-two turnover margin this season but have been on the plus side in each of their last four games.

3. Who has the advantage in the passing game?

At first glance, it would appear Northwestern has the clear edge in the passing game this week. Clayton Thorson has anchored a passing game averaging 270.5 yards per game, good for fourth in the Big Ten, but the results have been up and down with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Gophers also have the Big Ten's third-best pass defense (183.9 ypg) this season. Northwestern brings up the rear in the Big Ten pass defense rankings, while Minnesota ranks 13th in the conference in passing yards per game (143.0) offense. Something has to give, right?

Final Analysis

P.J. Fleck has Minnesota heading in a positive direction, and the Golden Gophers remain one win away from being able to go to a bowl game. Getting that elusive win may be difficult against Northwestern, which continues to play well. Northwestern will merely have to focus on shutting down Minnesota's rushing attack and that should swing the game in their favor rather easily. Brighter days are ahead for Minnesota, but Northwestern remains the second-best program going in the Big Ten West Division right now.

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Prediction: Northwestern 27, Minnesota 20

— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.