September 29, 2015

Two seasons ago, Northwestern went undefeated in nonconference play and then managed one Big Ten victory.

Focused on avoiding such a slide, the No. 16 Wildcats open league action looking to start 5-0 for the third time in six seasons Saturday against visiting Minnesota.

Northwestern is no stranger to early success, going 21-3 in August and September since the start of the 2010 season. However, it's 6-14 in October during that span.

The Wildcats won all four games on their nonconference slate in 2013, then dropped seven straight Big Ten contests before ending the season with a 37-34 victory at Illinois.

Defensive lineman Deonte Gibson experienced that disappointment and another 5-7 finish in 2014, but feels confident Northwestern has learned from the past.

"You've got to be ready to just play now," Gibson told the school's official website. "Everything that happened in prior years says that we'll struggle in October. I don't believe so.

"Conference play, you've got to pick up the flag a little more."

While Northwestern's offense continues to find its way under freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, it enters the week ranked third in the FBS in scoring defense at 8.8 points per contest and 11th in total defense at 266.0 yards.

However, the Wildcats likely need to play better after giving up their highest point total of the young season in last Saturday's 24-19 win over Ball State. The Cardinals' 359 yards were the most allowed by Northwestern in their nonconference schedule.

The Wildcats gave up 181 yards on the ground after yielding 177 to Duke a week earlier, issues that were made worse by injuries to safety Godwin Igwebuike and defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. If one or both are unable to play, though, Northwestern still has faith in its depth.

"We've really instilled the idea that the next man up has to be ready to go whenever it's his time to shine," safety Traveon Henry said.

The Wildcats also think their ability to grind out victories or overcome such in-game adversity has prepared them well for the league season.

''I think our maturity's really showing,'' said versatile senior Dan Vitale, who caught five passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns last week. "Finding ways to win, which is what you need to do in Big Ten play."

Vitale recorded seven receptions for 36 yards and no TDs while Northwestern dropped its last two meetings with Minnesota (3-1) by a combined 10 points.

Though the Golden Gophers played admirably in a 23-17 loss to then-No. 2 TCU on Sept. 3, they've averaged 20.0 points while beating Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio by a combined nine. They needed Shannon Brooks' 3-yard run with 30 seconds left to beat the Bobcats 27-24 last Saturday.

"Just finding a way to win, that's all you have to do at the end of the day," coach Jerry Kill said. "We have to grow up real fast because we are into the Big Ten schedule."

The Gophers also are dealing with injuries to starting defensive backs Antonio Johnson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and linebacker Cody Poock. If any or all are unable to go, Minnesota could find stopping Justin Jackson more difficult.

Second in the Big Ten with 516 rushing yards, Jackson gained a career-high 184 on 33 carries against Ball State. He's also caught four passes for 38 yards in the last two weeks.

Jackson ran for 106 yards and had four receptions for 50 and a touchdown in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota on Oct. 11.

Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner didn't throw a TD pass in that contest but ran for a pair of 1-yard scores.

Minnesota's lone victory in its last 16 road games against ranked league opponents was 28-24 over then-No. 21 Nebraska on Nov. 22.

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