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Northwestern Wildcats vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Prediction and Preview

Northwestern Wildcats vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Prediction and Preview

Northwestern Wildcats vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Prediction and Preview

A week after pulling off an upset, Minnesota will get a chance to double up at home against newly minted Big Ten West champion Northwestern. A victory over the No. 22 Wildcats (6-4, 6-1 Big Ten) also would make the Golden Gophers (5-5, 2-5) bowl eligible.

Last week, Minnesota stunned Purdue 41-10, turning the tables on a Boilermakers team that had already beaten Ohio State and Iowa. Northwestern also got the better of the Hawkeyes, as the Wildcats' 14-10 hard-fought victory in Iowa City last Saturday secured their first-ever trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis on Dec. 1.

In the process, Northwestern also became the first team in FBS history to win a division title without winning a non-conference game. Now that history has been made, the Wildcats will turn their focus on finishing the season strong while the Gophers look to secure a bowl berth.

Northwestern and Minnesota have split the last four meetings with the home team winning each time. The average margin of victory during this span has been 22.5 points per game.

Northwestern at Minnesota

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

TV: BTN

Spread: Northwestern -2.5

Three Things to Watch

1. "Row the boat"

That's Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck's motto and it's something his Golden Gophers did in perfect harmony last week in soundly defeating a Purdue team that's already pulled off some impressive wins of its own.

"Big win for our football team — proud of the resolve," Fleck said in his weekly press conference. "Kept their oars in the water and kept rowing the boat. We played to our strengths."

The good vibes of that thrashing should carry into Week 12, especially now that a bowl berth is within Minnesota's reach.

"One thing is our attitude every single week in our team meetings, after a win or a loss, has been outstanding," Fleck continued. "I think they realize, win or lose, you come back with the right attitude. We're very consistent in the positive energy we bring in how we have to get better.

"We've got to respond — we've got a great challenge this week. That's a great team in the Big Ten West champions."

Basically, if Fleck's crew can't build off the momentum of last week's massive victory, it'll be a shocker. Because Fleck is as uplifting a coach as there is in college football, he should have his charges feeling it in facing another tough test.

And we'll know right away if the Gophers are fired up.

2. Celebration hangover

Northwestern and its fans are probably still partying up and down the shore of Lake Michigan in Evanston, Illinois. And with good reason.

The school's first-ever Big Ten West title came in true Northwestern fashion, a gritty, gutty win over another grind-em-out squad in Iowa.

Even though the Wildcats will be chided for the handful of losses on the season, they can count themselves as champions. And you can't take away the fact they've dumped conference rivals such as Purdue, Iowa and Wisconsin in punching their ticket to Indianapolis for a shot at the Big Ten title.

Plus, Northwestern only lost to then-No. 14 Michigan 20-17 earlier this season and could end up getting a second shot at the Wolverines in Big Ten Championship Game.

But that's in a couple of weeks. The reality is that there's not much on the line for the Wildcats in Minnesota. No one would be at all surprised if there's a bit of a letdown under the circumstances.

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And there's only the question of how long do you leave your starters in if the big carrot you covet is only two weeks down the line?

The better bet is quarterback Clayton Thorson and many others will not be on the field that long with the goal being to fine-tune things next Saturday on Senior Day in Evanston against Illinois.

So the focus in Minneapolis will most likely be lacking, although don't tell that to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

“(The game) matters to us,” Fitzgerald told reporters this week. “Every game matters to us. It’s a Big Ten West game. We’ve talked about going with a championship game approach for a number of weeks. It’s an intradivisional game, just like next week (against Illinois).

“Champions win football games. You do that by the way you prepare and the way you execute. We will always have a pedal-down mentality here. I’m never going to take my foot off the gas. We’ll rest and recharge in January."

We'll know right away if the Wildcats are fired up.

3. Which Minnesota defense shows up?

The most shocking aspect of last week's win over Purdue was the yeoman's work of the Minnesota defense.

In the previous week against Indiana, the Golden Gophers surrendered 430 rushing yards alone and 646 yards of offense in total. That marked the third time in four contests that the defense had given up more than 500 yards and the eight straight Big Ten matchup in which it had yielded at least 30 points.

Then came last Saturday's effort against a Boilermakers offense that was averaging 485.2 yards and 35.8 points per game, the latter ranking them second in the Big Ten. Instead, Purdue managed just 233 yards and 10 points while going a woeful 0-for-12 on third down.

Minnesota's best defensive effort in nearly two months came a week after Fleck fired coordinator Robb Smith and replaced him with defensive line coach Joe Rossi. So what does Rossi's D have in mind for an encore?

One of the keys will be slowing down Northwestern running back Isaiah Bowser, a freshman who rolled up 165 rushing yards and a touchdown in last week's historic victory over Iowa.

Of course, stopping Thorson is vital, too, as the senior's confidence is through the roof given the run the Wildcats have been on. After a slow start in his return from a torn ACL, Thorson has found his rhythm as both a passer and in leading the offense. For the season, Thorson is completing 59 percent of his passes for 2,335 yards. He has 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but most importantly, he has helped lead his team to five wins over the last six games, the only loss coming to No. 3 Notre Dame.

Final Analysis

No matter what head coach Pat Fitzgerald says, this has all the makings of a trap game for Northwestern — and no one would be the least surprised.

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It's easy for him say his team will be up for the game. But after such a high last week in Iowa, there's nowhere to go but down — at least until the Wildcats play in the Big Ten Championship Game.

On the other side, Minnesota is a young team that needs to learn how to ride the wave — or row the boat, if you will.

Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck said it best in his weekly press conference.

"We're just too inconsistent."

Time to put that problem to rest — at least for one week.

Prediction: Minnesota 26, Northwestern 23 (OT)

— Written by Todd Saelhof, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports editor/writer for Postmedia in Canada. Follow him on @ToddSaelhofPM at #CollegeFootballFrenzy.

(Top photo courtesy of gophersports.com)