MINNEAPOLIS — It’s not often for there to be a lot on the line when Northwestern and Minnesota meet on the football field.
That there will be on Saturday even after shaky starts by both programs to this season is even more surprising.
Northwestern lost the first two games of the season to Cal and Northern Illinois. Minnesota was tested more than expected in a home win over Middle Tennessee State and then was smoked by TCU almost a month ago.
Both programs are trying to make those starts a distant memory.
The Wildcats have rebounded with impressive victories at Penn State and home against Wisconsin to start out 2-0 in the Big Ten. It’s helped pull them out of a slide that included nine losses in 10 games after a 4-0 start to last season.
The Golden Gophers are coming off a bye week that they entered on the high of a rare victory at Michigan, a 30-14 thumping that brought the Little Brown Jug back to Minnesota for just the second time in 24 meetings.
Both have done it on the ground.
Northwestern (3-2) rushed for 203 yards last week against the Badgers, with true freshman Justin Jackson racking up 162. Jackson ranks seventh in the Big Ten with 79.2 yards rushing per game and is averaging 4.4 carry, but coach Pat Fitzgerald said there is still plenty of room for improvement.
“The overall theme right now with what we’re doing offensively is we’re not finishing plays very well,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not there yet. The run game is one of the areas where we’re just not finishing blocks. They got a lot of those yards on their own and after contact. That’s encouraging. But we’ve got to finish better.”
The Gophers (4-1, 1-0) are riding running back David Cobb, who is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing. Cobb rushed for 183 yards in the Big House last week, which has helped them overcome an inconsistent passing attack thanks to quarterback Mitch Leidner’s gimpy knee.
“He wants to be really good,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “You’ve got to love football and that kid loves football. I think the balance, the strength, and he’s got a knack to get better as the game goes on.”
Here are a few things to watch in the game on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium:
BEEN AWHILE: A victory over the Gophers would give Northwestern its first 3-0 start in the conference since 2000. The Wildcats went on to win the Big Ten that season, as they did in 1995 and ’96 following 3-0 starts.
FAMILIAR FACES: Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has known Fitzgerald for years. Limegrover was a graduate assistant on the Wildcats coaching staff when Fitzgerald was a standout linebacker, and even though he coached on offense, Limegrover said Fitzgerald made quite an impression. “He’s probably one of the smartest defensive players I’ve ever been around even though I was GA on the other side of the ball and you see that carry over,” Limegrover said.
STOUT D: For the first time in a long time, the Gophers are playing some very good defense. The Gophers are allowing just 19 points per game and have shut their opponents out in 11 of the 20 quarters they have played this season. They have forced 15 turnovers this year, which is second in the Big Ten behind Michigan State’s 16.
IMMEDIATE IMPACT: In his first career start, Northwestern redshirt safety Godwin Igwebuike earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. Igwebuike had three interceptions against the Badgers, two of which came in the Wildcats end zone to help them hold on for a 20-14 win.
HANDLING SUCCESS: Kill has spent the week making sure his players have put the big victory over Michigan behind them and focused on Northwestern. But the Little Brown Jug is still taking a victory lap. “It’s got appointments,” Kill quipped. “I know I have been told earlier in the week I couldn’t get an appointment, so I think the President (Eric Kaler) overrules the head football coach.”