Northwestern, Minnesota meet in Big Ten opener
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) Unbeaten and on the rise, No. 16 Northwestern would like to stay that way now that Big Ten play is about to begin.
The Wildcats (4-0) host Minnesota (3-1) in the conference opener Saturday, hoping to build on a promising start.
''Great challenge,'' coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ''Minnesota just embodies everything that (coach) Jerry Kill is all about. They play physical. They're very athletic. They're tough. They've got a great idea of what they're doing in all three phases schematically.''
Northwestern got off to a 4-0 start in 2013 after a 10-win season, only to blow a 10-point lead against Ohio State and free fall from there.
The Wildcats finished 5-7, posted an identical record in 2014, and came into this season with little fanfare. But they are looking good at the moment with wins over Stanford in the opener and at Duke two weeks ago.
Northwestern got by Ball State last week, and now comes a big step with the start of Big Ten play.
''Those games are very valuable because they prepare us to play at the stage and at the level where we believe we can win our division (the Big Ten West),'' defensive lineman Deonte Gibson said.
Minnesota comes in with three straight wins after dropping the opener by six to then-No. 2 TCU. But it hasn't been easy for the Golden Gophers.
All three wins - at Colorado State and home against Kent State and Ohio - were by three points.
Minnesota was trailing the Bobcats by four with less than 2:30 last week when quarterback Mitch Leidner led a 78-yard touchdown drive that ended with Shannon Brooks' 3-yard plunge. But the way running back Rodney Smith sees it, the close calls just boosted the Gophers' confidence.
''We're battle-tested, I feel like,'' he said. ''You build that confidence heading into the Big Ten schedule knowing that you played a tough non-conference schedule. I think the big thing for us was coming out over .500 in those non-conference games and building confidence as a whole unit.''
Here are some things to look for as the Wildcats and Golden Gophers try to open Big Ten play on a winning note.
SECONDARY THOUGHT: Minnesota could be juggling its secondary. The Gophers got some good news, injury-wise, when they found out CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun will not need surgery on the knee he injured last Saturday against Ohio. But it was not clear if he will play against Northwestern. Antonio Johnson (concussion) and KiAnte Hardin (ankle) were injured against the Bobcats. Safety Damarius Travis (hamstring) will not play.
ON REBOUND: Leidner answered fans' calls for a switch by throwing for a career-high 264 yards in last week's 27-24 victory over Ohio. It was a strong response after an ugly 10-7 win over Kent State.
CLAMPING DOWN: Northwestern's defense has been among the stingiest in the nation. The Wildcats rank 11th nationally in total defense (266 yards per game) and third in scoring defense (8.8 points).
LIGHTER LOAD: With 68 carries over the past two games, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald would like to lighten the load on running back Justin Jackson. After rushing for 1,187 yards as a freshman last season, he is making it tough this year.
Jackson hit the 100-yard mark for the ninth time in 12 games last week when he ran for 184 yards on 33 attempts. That came on the heels of a 120-yard game at Duke in which he carried 35 times.
STEPPING UP: Freshman Clayton Thorson went from throwing for 70 yards at Duke to setting career highs with 256 yards and three touchdown passes against Ball State. But he did commit three turnovers in the first half, throwing an interception and losing two fumbles.
''I don't think he's had a great performance yet,'' Fitzgerald said.