FACTS & STATS: Site: TCF Bank Stadium (50,805) -- Minneapolis, Minnesota. Television:ESPN. Home Record: Northwestern 2-0, Minnesota 0-3. Away Record: Northwestern 2-0, Minnesota 1-0. Neutral Record: Northwestern 0-0, Minnesota 0-0. Conference Record: Northwestern 0-0, Minnesota 0-0. Series Record: Minnesota leads, 50-35-5.
GAME NOTES: Two teams headed in opposite directions collide in Minneapolis this weekend, as the Northwestern Wildcats tussle with the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Big Ten action at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Wildcats haven't played the most challenging schedule up to this point, but nonetheless, they have completed a perfect non-conference slate for just the second time in the last 48 seasons. The most recent of the team's four victories came this past weekend, a 30-25 decision over Central Michigan. Northwestern now heads back out to the road, where it has won four straight games, including two this season.
The Gophers meanwhile, have dropped three straight contests on their current four-game homestand. The streak began with a shocking 41-38 loss to South Dakota State, a FCS program, and continued last weekend with a surprising 34-23 defeat to Northern Illinois. Minnesota is now just 4-6 all-time at TCF Bank Stadium, which opened last season.
Minnesota leads the all-time series with Northwestern, 50-35-5, and that includes a 35-24 triumph in last season's meeting.
Northwestern's success can be attributed to the steady play of QB Dan Persa, who is in his first year as a starter. The redshirt junior has been nearly flawless thus far and he ranks third in the country in efficiency, while leading the nation with an 80.2 completion percentage. He has thrown just one pick in 106 attempts and is also a dual-threat, leading Northwestern with 172 yards on the ground. Persa did throw his first INT last weekend versus CMU, but he was still effective in completing 23-of-30 tosses for 280 yards and a pair of TDs. His main target was Jeremy Ebert, who brought in five passes for 83 yards and two scores. Ebert currently leads the team in catches (17), receiving yards (331) and TDs (four) on the season.
On the defensive side of things, Northwestern has shown a knack for making big plays, recording 12 takeaways, including eight INTs thus far. The Wildcats forced three turnovers last weekend, helping negate some of the 423 yards they surrendered to CMU. The defense also added three sacks to the equation, giving the unit a total of nine for the year. The Wildcats' run defense continues to be strong as well, holding CMU to just 76 yards on 23 carries. Opponents are averaging just 111.5 rushing ypg versus Northwestern thus far. Quentin Davie has done his part for the defense with 22 tackles and a team-high three INTs to his credit, while Vince Browne has provided a nice pass rush with four sacks and six TFLs.
QB Adam Weber threw for 373 yards and a pair of TDs, but it wasn't enough for Minnesota in a loss to NIU last weekend. With his effort, Weber became the ninth Big Ten QB in history to surpass 9,000 passing yards for his career. Weber, who has completed 62.6 percent of his tosses, has used MarQueis Gray and Da'Jon McKnight to his advantage, as the WR duo have combined for six of the team's seven passing TDs. Each player caught a TD last weekend, as Gray hauled in eight balls for 117 yards while McKnight finished with seven receptions for 72 yards. Tailback Duane Bennett was limited to just 72 yards on 24 carries last weekend, but he has still amassed 371 yards on the ground this season.
The problem for Minnesota this season has been its defense, which is giving up 417.5 total ypg, including 251.2 passing ypg. The defense just hasn't been able to stop anyone and is allowing challengers to convert 46.6 percent of the time on third downs. Last weekend, the Gophers' run defense was simply embarrassed by NIU, which ran for 297 yards on only 28 carries. NIU averaged a whopping 10.6 yards per carry, simply pushing around a supposedly better Minnesota club. Christyn Lewis had six stops, to go with a forced and recovered fumble in the loss, and he currently ranks fourth on the team with 17 tackles for the year.
The Gophers are a mess right now and just might be the worst team in the Big Ten. Minnesota should be ready for this one, but Northwestern should still have enough in the end to claim the victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Northwestern 34, Minnesota 27