The Gophers might be 12-point underdogs heading into Saturday’s game at Northwestern, but Minnesota sees an opportunity to re-establish a running game that spurred a 4-0 nonconference start.
Northwestern allowed an average of 118 yards rushing in four nonconference victories but gave up 248 yards and 286 yards on the ground, respectively, in losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Granted those are two of the best rushing teams in the Big Ten, but the Gophers averaged 282 yards rushing in nonconference play before being held to 30 yards on the ground in a disappointing loss to Iowa.
The Gophers fared better on the ground in their loss to Michigan on Oct. 5, rushing for 136 yards, including 66 on 18 carries from quarterback Mitch Leidner.
David Cobb ran for 332 yards on 53 carries in four nonconference games (6.3 yards per carry), and fellow running back Rodrick Williams gained 277 on 45 carries (6.2). In two Big Ten games, though, Cobb has run for 42 yards on 15 carries (2.8) and Williams 55 on 15 (3.7).
“We feel like this is a defense we match up with, a lot like Michigan’s, and that’s a huge part of the equation,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “With their style of defense, with the way they play their personnel, it’s a matchup that we feel like we’re going to have a good opportunity to be able to run the football.”
The Big Ten released its 2018 and 2019 schedules, so the conference’s next six years of league games are now set.
Next year, the Gophers will move to the Big Ten West Division, along with Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue.
In 2014 and 2015, each team will play six intradivision games and two interdivision games. The Gophers received arguably the toughest draw in the West Division for those two years, as they play Michigan and Ohio State from the East Division. For comparison, Wisconsin’s two crossover games those two years come against Rutgers and Maryland.
In 2016, the Big Ten is moving to a nine-game conference schedule, including three interdivision games for each team. The Gophers’ three opponents from the East that year are Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers.
In 2017, the Gophers’ three East opponents are Maryland, Michigan State and Michigan. In 2018, their East opponents are Maryland, Ohio State and Indiana. And in 2019, their East opponents are Rutgers, Maryland and Penn State.
Willing to switch
Brock Vereen started 12 games at cornerback as a sophomore for the Gophers before moving to safety last year as a junior. The coaches moved him to cornerback in practice last week, just in case Derrick Wells and Martez Shabazz aren’t ready to come back from their respective shoulder injuries.
“Wherever they need me to be, I’m here for the team,” Vereen said. “Nothing is certain. It’s kind of fill-in where needed. There’s some question marks as far as injuries go, so I’ve just got to do whatever gets thrown at me.”
Relishing his chance
Senior kicker Chris Hawthorne lost his starting job after injuring his right quadriceps in 2011 and watched Jordan Wettstein handle the kicking duties again last year.
But Hawthorne has re-emerged as the team’s starting kicker for the first six games.
“It’s been a tremendous blessing and something I’m eternally grateful for,” Hawthorne said.
Hawthorne has made seven of nine field-goal attempts, with a long of 45 yards, and has made 20 of 23 extra points.
“I think I’ve done a decent job,” he said. “There’s room for improvement as there is at every phase of our game. It’s something we’ve worked real hard on, and I think the effort’s shown.”