For this weekly column, the Minnesota Daily talks to somebody knowledgeable on the Gophers next opponent. This week, Minnesota will travel to Evanston, Illinois to face the Wildcats. We talked to Ben Pope, who covers football for the Daily Northwestern. Pope is a reporter for the Wildcats' football and men's basketball teams.
How has the season been overall for the Wildcats?
After a slow start, partially because of having to play Wisconsin and Penn State. The first two conference games, they've really come around [and] found their groove. Five-straight wins now, including becoming the first team in FBS history to win three straight in overtime. It's really been a product of improvement on both sides of the ball. The offensive line, which was a big issue earlier in the season, has improved tremendously, which has helped with the passing and running game. Defensively, the Cats have become one of the strongest teams in the country against the run. Improvement across the board has gotten this season back on track to finish 8-4, [or] 9-3, which is about where people expected coming into the season.
The five-game winning streak, did you see it coming, and how much different have they looked in the last five games vs. the first five?
I think it was fair to say that every realized the schedule got easier after those first two conference games, so maybe, to some extent, you could see it coming, but I don't think anyone expected the Cats to win all five of these games. I think the biggest concern was how poorly they played in the Duke game — the second game of the year. They were dominated across the board, looked completely inept especially in the passing game. I think once the schedule got a bit easier, once they got the confidence of the win over Iowa, it's really just snowballed from there.
How has quarterback Clayton Thorson improved since the Duke game, and how has he looked generally this season?
If he is facing a steady pass rush, getting sacked a lot, it really shakes his confidence and affects his throws, even on plays when he's not facing a strong pass rush. When he's getting good protection, which he has over these last five games, he's one of the more experienced and poised quarterbacks in the conference. He can make plays with his legs, he has maybe four or five rushing touchdowns this year, and he has a good arm. He's working with a bit of an inexperienced receiver group this year, but they do with what he has.
Minnesota really relies on the run to generate offense, what do you think Northwestern's situation is going to be against them, and how has the run defense improved this season?
It comes down to the defensive line. The nose tackle, Tyler Lancaster, is wearing the No. 1 jersey, at Northwestern that's the thing that's awarded at the beginning of each season voted on by the players to basically the guy they want to represent the face of the team. For it to go to a defensive lineman is a pretty big deal. They've continued to be virtually unstoppable against the run, they were talking about this in a team [press conference], that opponents seem to just abandon the run by halftime every game, and just turn to passing exclusively. The problem could be against Minnesota that the Cats don't have a great track record against running quarterbacks. I think that's going to be one area of concern that the Cats could have a bad matchup against Minnesota.
What's the most effective position group on the offense?
What's the most effective position group on the defense?
Who's the best offensive player?
Who's the best defensive player?
Who is a player flying under the radar?
End of season record prediction?
Score prediction for the game on Saturday?
Minnesota 21, Northwestern 24.