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Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Northwestern Wildcats: 3 things to watch

Northwestern Wildcats closes its home season aiming for a major bowl berth. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Golden Gophers look to keep up their strong play to earn their own bowl spot.

Rashad Still, MInnesota Golden Gophers, Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern Wildcats, Jared McGee

When: Sat. Nov. 18, 2017; 12 p.m. ET/11 a.m. CT
Where: Evanston, Ill.; Ryan Field (47,130)
TV: BTN
All-Time Series: Minnesota leads 34-53-5
Last Meeting: Minnesota won 29-12 (Nov. 19, 2016)
Line: Northwestern (-7)

The Northwestern Wildcats have ended up exactly where everyone thought they would.

The Big Ten West is already decided and Northwestern is likely to finish second in the division. That was the going bet before the season.

So was likely the bet that Northwestern would finish somewhere in the bottom of the College Football Playoff rankings or just outside of them. And the possibility the Wildcats could go on a long win streak to end the season.

Since the loss to Penn State in Evanston more than a month ago, Northwestern has burned off five straight wins. Three of those came in overtime. It was the typical Northwestern grittiness.

This whole season has taken on a lot of that typical Northwestern grittiness in some way. The team plays disciplined and gutsy with a frustrating offense that feels like it should do more. And a defense that does just enough to keep opponents off the scoreboard. They force opponents to press in the red zone and force mistakes as the field tightens.

That is Northwestern football. It is a style living dangerously on the edge. And the Wildcats have done that. And done it well.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers also felt like they were poised to take another step. P.J. Fleck was going to bring a new energy to the team. They were a talented group looking for a new direction and that new energy.

Injuries have largely sapped Minnesota of its power. Instead of a solid season, the Gophers have struggled for consistency. The team is 5-5 and needs one more win — against Northwestern or Wisconsin — to guarantee a bowl berth.

Minnesota, as injuries have decimated the team, has focused less on the pass and more on the run. Something the Gophers defense is very good at stopping.

It feels like Minnesota has the seeds for a good program. A team with a ton of talent and the potential to be next year’s dark horse. It just may not come this year. And they are unlucky not to be in a position to make a bowl game.

Minnesota should come out desperate to win this game in Evanston. The Gophers need this one to go their way with the tough battle with the Badgers ahead. The road is not easy.

But Northwestern has proven it is not likely to make any win easy. Even the win over Purdue had its weak moments. The Wildcats are not about to run away from anyone.

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Demry Croft from the backfield

Demry Croft has really taken off since taking over as the Golden Gophers starting quarterback. And he gives Minnesota a different dynamic from the quarterback positions.

Croft has not been able to get himself going in the pass game. Injuries at wide receiver have hurt there too. The Gophers just do not have a lot of weapons. That has allowed teams to load up against the run and made life hard for Minnesota.

Croft at least keeps them off balance. His 183 yards on 10 carries were a big reason Minnesota scored the 54-21 win over Nebraska. He made enough plays with his arm to get Nebraska to respect the run. And the Gophers steamrolled the Cornhuskers from there.

Croft has rushed for 337 yards on 59 attempts in seven appearances for Minnesota. That helped Rodney Smith get to 799 yards rushing total too.

Croft though averages a mere 84.4 yards per game passing. Teams simply lock down this passing game.

Northwestern is a great run defense. The Wildcats rank second in the conference against the run. But it has been a while since they faced a running quarterback.

The last real running quarterback Northwestern faced was Duke’s Daniel Jones. He passed for 305 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns. That was a killer game for the Blue Devils and the worst loss of the season for the Wildcats.

It is hard to think this Northwestern team is the same as that team. Yet, there have been plenty of instances where Northwestern has allowed the quarterback to put up surprisingly nice runs in big spots.

Things might be different this time around. But if Northwestern loads up on stopping the run, there could be some open lanes to pass the ball for Croft. Or there could be open running lanes if NU commits too much to staying in a base pass defense.

Justin Jackson’s finale

Saturday will mark senior day at Ryan Field and the last time Justin Jackson, Godwin Igwebuike, Tyler Lancaster and the other Northwestern seniors play at home. That will surely be an emotional day for an accomplished class that will go to three bowl games and win at least one of them. They seem set to win nine games in two of their four seasons too.

This has not been the senior year Justin Jackson hoped for.

After leading the Big Ten in rushing yards last year, Jackson has just 844 rushing yards this year (84.4 per game). With three games left (barring injury), Jackson will still hit 1,000 yards for the fourth straight year. That would put him alone for that mark in Northwestern history.

The plain fact is teams have started to load up against the run and limit what Jackson can do.

Against Purdue, Jackson rushed for just 46 yards on 25 carries. He had just 41 yards on 17 carries against Michigan State three weeks ago. Granted, there was a 154-yard, 31-carry game against Nebraska. Jackson will explode for yards and he gets stronger as the game goes on. He seems indefatigable.

It will be tough to say goodbye to the Ballcarrier.

He has one more chance to make a memory.

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The Weather Factor

There have been a few times where the weather played a factor in Northwestern games. Fans were upset with Pat Fitzgerald for sitting on the ball against Iowa with about 80 seconds to play and accepting overtime. He said the wind was too stiff to throw into.

The weather in Evanston on Saturday is not going to be pretty.

It is expected to rain all night and into Saturday’s game almost throughout the entire game. The win will be fairly stiff at about 15 miles per hour. That may limit Clayton Thorson and his ability to pass the ball. It will put a premium on ball control and the run game.

That will play to Minnesota’s advantage for sure. The Wildcats’ advantage is they have a potent passing attack. The rain could very well disrupt their rhythm. And Thorson has a penchant for throwing picks, especially when put under pressure. A wet football is not going to help matters.

Northwestern is good at protecting the ball though with just seven fumbles this year — against 14 forced fumbles. Minnesota has not been as good with 16 fumbles this year. That too may play a factor.

The Wildcats defense is strong and disciplined. Even if the offense makes missteps, the defense has always bailed it out. The conditions may favor Northwestern against an inexperienced Minnesota team.

But the rain equalizes a lot of things and adds an element of uncertainty.

Prediction: Northwestern 28, Minnesota 13

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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