In the Gophers’ two weeks of preparation for Northwestern, a sequence of plays from the team’s Sept. 29 loss to Iowa stuck in the mind of the coaching staff.
Minnesota fell behind 24-0 at halftime to the Hawkeyes and never recovered.
Head coach Jerry Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said a series of plays in the first half changed the entire landscape of the game.
Claeys spoke with aggression Tuesday after practice. He said he saw on film eight plays that essentially ended the game for Minnesota before it started.
“It was because of those eight plays we fell off the edge of the world,” Claeys said.
Hawkeyes stud running back Mark Weisman bowled over Minnesota’s tacklers, and Claeys said that was more a product of poor tackling than Weisman’s brutal running style.
Weisman carried the ball 21 times for 177 yards and a touchdown and did nearly all his damage in the first half.
“In the second half they get 50 yards and they were running the same damn stuff,” Claeys said. “It’s frustrating as hell because all of a sudden the game’s over … and because of that little eight-play swing you pissed it away. I just think we’re better than that.”
The Gophers will have a chance to prove they’re better this week against another explosive-run offense.
Northwestern, known in recent years for its pass-heavy offense, enters this meeting as one of the better running teams in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats rank third in the conference in rushing offense with 232 yards per game.
Their dynamic rushing attack is led by dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter and lightning-quick running back Venric Mark.
Both athletes run with a shifty style that is opposite the bruising approach of Weisman, but they could still pose problems for a front that has struggled stopping the run for most of this season.
“They’re going to spread out the defense, and they’re going to play two quarterbacks,” Kill said of the Wildcats. “They’re going to play fast. They had 21 points [when we played them] a year ago before we even blinked. They’re going to go.”
Northwestern executes a fast-paced offense and scores 32.8 points per game. But Minnesota has grown familiar to this quick-strike style this season.
The Gophers have already faced three no-huddle offenses this year from New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse.
“They line up on the ball fast … so conditioning becomes a factor,” junior safety Brock Vereen said. “We’ve had the opportunity [to play against it] so that’s an advantage.”
Northwestern has used Colter at quarterback and wideout all season, and Claeys said he expects no different this week.
Claeys said Minnesota has prepared for Colter in the backfield but knows it will see pass-first sophomore Trevor Siemian in most passing situations.
Claeys said when Colter takes snaps, the defense expects more option plays, and when Siemian is in, the Wildcats will throw the ball more.
“[We] have to know where everyone is at all times,” Vereen said. “They have great athletes out there that can play multiple positions.”
For the Gophers, Max Shortell will start his third straight game as former starter MarQueis Gray continues to heal from a high-ankle sprain.
Gray practiced this week, and Kill said the Gophers might use him in certain packages over the weekend.
Shortell said having a week off was nice, but the team is ready to right the wrongs from two weeks ago.
“We got a chance to relax and kind of refocus after the loss to Iowa,” he said, “but we want to come out and prove that we can play and beat anyone.”
Even the coaches are itching to get that loss out of their heads.
“I’ve had a miserable off week,” Claeys said. “I know we’re better than that, but you’ve got to wait two weeks and everybody talks about that. I’m excited to play Saturday.”