With the Big Ten West at stake, columnist Chip Scoggins is previewing each of the Gophers’ final three games. After last week’s loss at Nebraska, they fell into a tie for third place. This week: Gophers (7-3, 4-3 West) vs. Northwestern (5-5, 4-3 West)
How about airing it out?
A loss at Nebraska knocked the Gophers out of a first-place tie in the Big Ten West division. With two games remaining, the Gophers need a win and some help to stay in contention.
Saturday’s game against Northwestern at TCF Bank Stadium marks their home finale.
Here are three things the Gophers must accomplish to earn their eighth victory. First, the passing game: One of the more ironic developments for the Gophers this season is that their offense has made dramatic improvement in scoring even though the passing game has provided minuscule production.
The Gophers have increased their scoring average from 22.5 points last season to 31.8 points this season.
They finished 105th nationally in scoring a year ago; they’re ranked 49th now.
They have made that big leap despite one of the most ineffective passing games in college football. Purely from a statistical standpoint, Mitch Leidner has had a disappointing senior season. He has thrown only five touchdowns total, four coming against FCS school Indiana State.
Leidner has not thrown a touchdown pass since the Penn State game and has reached 200 yards passing only three times in nine games.
Nebraska committed extra defenders to bottle up the running game last week and the Gophers managed only 180 yards passing. If Northwestern takes a similar approach, Leidner and his receivers have to take more advantage than that.
Northwestern owns the worst pass defense in the Big Ten, so opportunities should be there.
Pick your poison
The Wildcats feature a 1,000-yard rusher in Justin Jackson and a 1,000-yard receiver in Austin Carr. The Gophers can’t allow both juniors to have productive performances.
The Gophers will design their defensive game plan around limiting the 5-11, 193-pound Jackson because if they can’t stop the run, the Wildcats will be able to dictate whatever they desire.
Quarterback Clayton Thorson doesn’t complete a high percentage of passes (57.3) but he is third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game at 257.1. He has also thrown 19 touchdown passes – 12 to Carr, so the Gophers know where Thorson wants to go with the ball.
The Gophers have to take something away and make the Wildcats offense one-dimensional.
Return to solid tackling
The Gophers typically have been a solid tackling defense this season under coach Tracy Claeys and defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel. That became an uncharacteristic problem in the Nebraska loss.
The defense missed an inordinate number of tackles in the second half, which helped the Cornhuskers generate 14 points and 237 total yards in their comeback.
The most glaring example occurred when safeties Damarius Travis and Duke McGhee both missed tackles on Terrell Newby’s 31-yard touchdown catch on a screen pass, tying the score in the third quarter.
Were breakdowns in fundamentals merely a one-game blip or something that could continue? That’s worth watching.