While some Minnesotans dread the first blast of winter air this week, Gophers defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel basically says, “Bring it on.”
It might help the Gophers cool Northwestern’s red-hot offensive trio of quarterback Clayton Thorson, wide receiver Austin Carr and running back Justin Jackson.
“I’m glad it’s going to be cold,” Sawvel said. “I’m glad it’s going to be like just brutal winter.”
The Twin Cities might escape the snow heading for Duluth on Friday, but Saturday’s forecast calls for high temperatures in the 30s at TCF Bank Stadium, with strong winds.
Of course, Northwestern is used to the chill winds that blow off Lake Michigan. Pat Fitzgerald’s team (5-5, 4-3 Big Ten) has proven resilient, bouncing back from season-opening losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State.
No. 14 Western Michigan remains undefeated, so that 22-21 loss doesn’t look so bad, but the 9-7 loss to Illinois State left a mark. The Redbirds are an FCS team with a 6-5 record.
“I watched one of those games yesterday,” Sawvel said. “I’m like, ‘Who are these people?’ I have no idea what happened. [Northwestern students] aren’t in class until the middle of September, so maybe they need to be in class because it was a completely different football team. You watch them play now and it isn’t even close.”
Northwestern scored 38 points against Iowa, 54 against Michigan State and 45 against Purdue. This is the offense Fitzgerald dreamed of last season when his team went 10-3 despite ranking last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (19.5).
Thorson has blossomed as a sophomore, ranking third in the Big Ten in passing yards (2,571). Carr is the Big Ten’s leading receiver and the only player in the country with at least five receptions and 73 receiving yards in every game.
Then there’s Jackson, a junior who rushed for 127 yards against Purdue last week, becoming the first player in Northwestern history to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark three times.
“We’re going to have to control Justin Jackson and keep him from having a big day,” Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said. “And if we do that, then I think we’ll have an opportunity to win.”
Northwestern’s entire offense slows when Jackson stalls. He had just 42 yards against Illinois State, and the same number in a 21-7 loss to Wisconsin. Nebraska (79) and Ohio State (76) also held him under 100 yards in those Northwestern losses.
But that Ohio State game, in Columbus, was more proof of how dangerous the Wildcats can be. They went toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes in the 24-20 loss.
Northwestern’s defense showed the same teeth it had last season when it blanked Minnesota 27-0. Linebacker Anthony Walker is a first-team All-Big Ten player. Safety Godwin Igwebuike is the conference’s fourth-leading tackler. And defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo is tied for the Big Ten lead with eight sacks.
“I think No. 7 [Odenigbo] is just tremendous off the edge,” Gophers offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said. “Might be one of the best pass rushers we’ve seen so far.
“Their front seven is probably the biggest we’ve seen. They’re very stout. They play their gaps, and they’re going to be very sound, so we’ve got to try to create some movement and create some space.”
Add it up and it’s understandable why Northwestern entered Wednesday as a 1 ½-point favorite over the Gophers, even on the road. Minnesota can ill afford any hangover from last week’s loss at Nebraska.
Sawvel is confident the Gophers will be ready.
“No. 1, it’s the last game for our seniors at home,” he said. “We still have a chance to have a really good season. There are things that this group can achieve that we haven’t achieved yet. We could still win nine and 10 games — we haven’t done that [since 2003].”
First the Gophers need win No. 8. Northwestern will make them earn it.