College football is quickly approaching -- we’re 23 days away from the Gophers’ season opener on Aug. 30. So, with that in mind, I’ll take a look at Minnesota’s 12 opponents by asking five questions to a beat writer covering that team. Today’s installment is Game 11, Northwestern.
When, where: Nov. 17, TCF Bank Stadium. Time, TV to be determined
2017 record: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten; defeated Kentucky 24-23 in Music City Bowl
Opponent’s beat writer: Caleb Friedman, Inside NU
Five Questions for Caleb Friedman on Northwestern
1. Veteran quarterback Clayton Thorson tore an ACL in the Music City Bowl last year. Do you expect him to be ready for the season opener at Purdue?
Northwestern is tight-lipped when it comes to injury news, and it's no different with Thorson. By all accounts, Thorson has progressed well and is on schedule with his rehab. It's unclear whether Thorson will be ready to play Week 1, but, without knowing for sure, I have a hunch he'll find a way to play opening night in his senior season. People within and outside the program have sounded optimistic, but we probably won't know for sure until the first game week.
2. Jeremy Larkin is the heir apparent to Justin Jackson, the school’s all-time leading rusher. Can he match the productivity Jackson supplied?
It's tough to say Larkin will fully replace Jackson's production, but Larkin looked ready for a starring role last season. He rushed for over 500 yards and delivered explosive and important plays in big moments. He won't be a four-year starter like Jackson was, but he has a chance to burst onto the scene as one of the conference's best backs. Larkin will have to prove he's durable enough to handle the season-long grind of being a starting running back, but he certainly has the talent to at least replicate enough of Jackson's yardage and impact (especially with some solid backups behind him).
3. Northwestern’s defense ranked ninth nationally against the rush and 20th in scoring. Is there enough talent returning to remain at that high level?
Northwestern loses both its starting safeties, so there are major questions about the secondary. But, Northwestern returns nearly its entire front seven, including several studs. Joe Gaziano is back after leading the Big Ten in sacks at defensive end, and Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall return at linebacker after All-Big-Ten-caliber seasons. There's strong depth on the edges too, so the pass rush should be good. If the back end of the secondary holds up, the defense will be scary once again.
4. Northwestern will beat the Gophers if …
… Northwestern's offensive line creates some semblance of a pocket for Clayton Thorson to throw. When Northwestern played Minnesota two years ago in Minneapolis, Thorson was running for his life down after down, which has been the case many times over the past several years. There's a lot of experience on the line this season, so there is reason for optimism, but poor line play has doomed the offense and hamstrung the play-calling before -- even against significantly inferior opponents. Solid blocking, particularly in the passing game, will go a long way toward an NU win.
5. The Gophers will beat Northwestern if …
… They control the clock. Northwestern's offense has scored in bunches several times with Thorson at the helm, but not consistently. Controlling the clock is a recipe for success for any football team, but especially against a Northwestern offense and passing game that doesn't have the most firepower in the world.
Looking for more on the upcoming college football season? Check out previous some posts:
New Mexico State, Aug. 30
Fresno State, Sept. 8
Miami (Ohio), Sept. 15
at Maryland, Sept. 22
Iowa, Oct. 6
at Ohio State, Oct. 13
at Nebraska, Oct. 20
Indiana, Oct. 26
at Illinois, Nov. 3
Purdue, Nov. 10