Each week, a reporter covering the Gophers’ opponent will be my guest to break down his or her team. This week, it’s Caleb Friedman of InsideNU. He takes a look at Northwestern and Saturday’s game.
Here’s the Q&A with Caleb Friedman:
Q: Northwestern was 2-3 after back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. What has been the key to the Wildcats’ surge?
A: Northwestern has improved significantly in the trenches in recent weeks. The offensive line was abysmal early in the season, particularly in the losses against Duke, Wisconsin and Penn State, but that unit has eliminated mental mistakes and played much better during the team’s current five-game winning streak. On the defensive side, Northwestern has stopped the run (more on that later) and rushed the passer more effectively. Defensive ends Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller have become much more active as the season has gone along.
Q: Northwestern beat Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska in overtime in consecutive weeks. How much confidence has the team gained from that stretch?
A: The string of three straight overtime games was huge in the context of Northwestern’s season. Iowa is always a huge game for Pat Fitzgerald & Co., so beating the Hawkeyes after two demoralizing losses got the team back on track. A triple-OT win over a top-25 Spartans team showcased the growth of the NU defense over the course of the season, and was an emotional, propelling win. Northwestern has its swagger back, and it’s playing good football at the moment.
Q: What has been the biggest factor in the Wildcats allowing only 109.6 rushing yards per game, second fewest in the Big Ten?
A: The NU linebackers have been awesome this season. Redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher has emerged as one of the conference’s best middle linebackers, and Nate Hall has been all over the field at as well. Fisher isn’t the fastest player, but he has great instincts and doesn’t miss many tackles; he’s had two 17-tackle games this season. The defensive line has opened up gaps and occupied blockers for the linebackers to attack the line of scrimmage, and the front seven hasn’t conceded much on the ground as a result.
Q: Where do you see Northwestern ending up in bowl season, and why?
A: It’s hard to pinpoint which bowl Northwestern will go to, and some of that will depend on whether a Big Ten team goes to the College Football Playoff, but there are a few options. The Wildcats played in the Pinstripe Bowl last season, so that’s off the table. The most likely options, then, are the Foster Farms Bowl, the Music City Bowl or the TaxSlayer Bowl, though the ultimate outcome is dependent on many different factors.
Q: What is your prediction for Saturday’s final score, and how did you arrive there?
A: I’ll take Northwestern, by a score of 27-20. Clayton Thorson was much better throwing the ball last week against Purdue than he was against Nebraska, and he has the arm to expose the Gophers in the back end. Thorson’s ability to find receivers deep down the field will open lanes for Justin Jackson to run through, and the Wildcats’ defense will turn in another solid outing.