#11 Minnesota Golden Gophers at Northwestern Wildcats Game Preview

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Saturday brings the High Energy Head Coach Who Usually Give Entertaining Press Conference Bowl when P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota Golden Gophers visit Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern Wildcats. (I guess the polar opposite of this match-up would be Iowa-Wisconsin, Kirk Ferentz and Paul Chryst). It’s no accident these two men are so similar.

Fleck’s coaching mentor literally is Fitzgerald, the reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year. (And this year Fleck could claim the award himself. Back when the very recently extended Gophers coach was just starting out his coaching career, working as a receivers coach at his alma mater, Northern Illinois, he called up all the coaches he had contact info for and offered to take them out to lunch.

PJ FLECK

His objective was to pick their brains and get some pro tips about how to succeed.

Only one guy accepted his offer and that was the man in Evanston. “He’s a trail blazer,” Fleck said of Fitz at Big Ten Media Day.

Northwestern Wildcats Preview

In the battle between the easily resistible force and the effortlessly moved object, (UMass’ defense vs Northwestern’s offense) last week, the Wildcats dominated the Minutemen  45-6. Many of us guffawed at the opening line, which saw Northwestern favored by 40. Those who make free college football predictions were definitely in the know on this one as the line settled at 38. Blowouts are always a difficult play, because you just don’t know what will happen in garbage time, when meaningless points are scored, possibly resulting in a bad beat against the spread.

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SATURDAY, November 23

11am CT – Northwestern Wildcats vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers (Ryan Field; Evanston, Ill.)

ABC: Bob Wischusen, Dan Orlovsky, Allison Williams (photos and bio)

WGN720Dave Eanet, Ted Albrecht

Spread: Minnesota Golden Gophers -13

Obviously, Vegas knows what they’re doing. You were right! I was wrong last week. We’ll see what happens here with Minnesota being two touchdown favorites.

Last week, the Cats did it all on the ground, rushing 52 times for 334 yards. Freshman Evan Hull, who entered the game with just 15 yards rushing on only eight carries for the season, ran wild with 220 yards and four touchdowns.

The Wildcats third leading rusher in the game, freshman Raymond Niro III entered the contest with absolutely no recorded statistics to speak of.

That’s the good news.

The bad news, even against their weakest opponent, in their biggest win of the season, NU still could not pass the ball to save their life. Aidan Smith was only 7-13 for 76 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns. Hey, there’s a reason that even the biggest NU cheerleader in the media has literally called this offense the most boring in the nation.

Today, at his weekly news conference, Fitzgerald was as harsh about the QBs/passing offense as he’s arguably ever been about any position group at Northwestern, ever.

“It’s pretty obvious that some of our guys did not do the things they needed to do to prepare for the season,” he said.

“The production, or lack thereof, is a testament to preparation. In the preseason, we sat here and everyone told me who my starting quarterback was and I told everyone there was a battle. Obviously, I ended up being right…But it comes down to me. The best person has to play, the most consistent person has to play, not the media-anointed one.”

Says a lot about the pressure on Quarterbacks Coach/Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall.

Fitz continued:

“That is the number one room that I will get fixed. Period. End of discussion. Jason and Andrew are chomping at the bit to get an opportunity. Aidan and Hunter have to prepare better. And they have to preform better. No one was ready to take on the starting role.”

What about Hunter Johnson? The 5-star QB/#1 ranked player at his position in the class of 2017 got demoted even further. Now he’s no longer even on the two deep roster.

Said Fitzgerald: “It’s not fair to completely assess him with the medical and personal issues he’s had this year.”

You can expect some big changes next season.

Minnesota Golden Gophers Preview 

Minnesota can clinch at least a share of the West Division title this weekend with a win over Northwestern. They’ll win it outright if Purdue can upset Wisconsin, on top of their achieving a win at Northwestern.

The Gophers lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes for the fifth straight time, ninth straight in Iowa City, last weekend. Iowa’s six sacks on against Minnesota was the most they have had in a game since 2013, and they held the Gophers to a season-low 19 points.

What went wrong? Well, the Gophers didn’t run the ball very well, and in the games where the rushing attack is missing, they have had some issues. Overall though, the season has pretty much gone as I (and not many others) have anticipated.

I picked them as my sleeper team in August. I said they would go 9-3 (well, it looks like they’ll be even better than that now, probably 10-1 heading into the final week of the season) because I looked at their fluky and extremely soft early schedule and saw that it was essentially a reverse of a mullet (party in front, business in the back).

I fully anticipated their being 8-0 and feeling confident when Penn State came to visit. I thought it would be a close game, but even I was surprised when they won.

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Sure, they won’t make the College Football Playoff and the SID has often not been acting like they’ve been there before, but what can you do? Minnesota literally has not been here before; in the era of modern football.

The last time they were 9-0 at any point was 1904. However, the Gophers have had gotten it done with a balanced attack, all world WRs, and a ball-hawking defense. It all starts with quarterback Tanner Morgan, who takes excellent care of the football, and serves as a very effective distributor.

That’s been the major difference between this season and last.

A Big Ten title game berth still remains in the Gophers grasp, and who knows maybe a Rose Bowl appearance as well?

Prediction: Minnesota Golden Gophers 31, Northwestern Wildcats 0

Northwestern won at Minnesota last year 24-14, and thrashed the Gophers 39-0 at home in 2017. The two coaches also met in the 2016 season opener, with Fleck’s Western Michigan Broncos emerging triumphant in a big upset. Look for Fleck to even his record against Fitzgerald, in a game that will basically be the same thing as the 2017 edition, only with the roles reversed.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, the author of “No,  I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” regularly appears on WGN CLTV and co-hosts the “Let’s Get Weird, Sports” podcast on SB Nation

You can follow Banks, a former writer for NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com on Twitter here and his cat on Instagram at this link.

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