If you’re a Minnesota Golden Gopher fan, you might be thinking “uh-oh”. At least that’s the mentality we would have if facing a similar situation. Three weeks ago, the ‘Cats-Minnesota 11 am-er had “trap game” written all over it. The entire off-season, Northwestern fans circled this two-week stretch against Ohio State and Wisconsin as one that could be the differentiator from a “good” season versus a “great season”. After the blowout loss at Wisconsin in which every conceivable facet of the game was bad for the ‘Cats (sans Jeff Budzien), you’d like to think Northwestern will be playing with a mighty big chip on its shoulder against Minnesota.
The Gophers, like a seemingly odd number of teams, enjoyed a week off in advance of Saturday (seriously, this “bye week” thing vs NU is getting out of control). Minnesota has bigger picture issues distracting its program as head coach Jerry Kill has taken a to be determined leave of absence from the program to wisely focus on his health. After yet another epileptic seizure in advance of the Michigan game two weeks ago, the highly respected leader has turned the program over to defensive coordinator, Tracy Claeys.
The ‘Cats and Gophers are tied in the basement of the Legends Division – both at 4-2,0-2 – and both facing significant adversity. Minnesota almost seems trained for this situation based on the multiple epileptic attacks and back-up plans they’ve endured during Jerry Kill’s two-plus seasons. Northwestern, meanwhile, hasn’t lost back to back games since the 2011 season and now faces Gopher week with all kinds of injury question marks to its biggest offensive stars. Kain Colter was put on the shelf with an ankle injury partway through the Madison massacre and Venric Mark carried three times before we learned he was getting X-rays on his ankle. Trevor Siemian was last seen consulting with trainers on the bench at the end of the Wisconsin game as well.
The LTP comments section has gone up in arms, somewhere between Chicken Little and “we’re going to win out”. The reality, at this point, lies likely somewhere in between. It’s amazing what a couple of weeks of B1G football can do to perspective. Just two weeks ago NU was emerging as many pundits’ picks to challenge Ohio State for the B1G title. Michigan State was getting mocked for its lack of offense. Now, NU has taken a freefall out of the rankings, is being crowned a “pretender” and Michigan State is emerging (in large part due to a soft schedule) as a favorite as the Legends team to beat.
With six games to play, I’m becoming that neurotic fan that needs to concentrate on just this one game as if I’m a player (insert Fitz-ism “gotta go 1-0 this week” here). I can’t hazard to let my psyche think beyond Minnesota. I can’t start schedule surfing (“if we get to Nebraska at 6-2, 2-2….”). First, I have to see something from this team. It’s almost as if Mark Rudner, the B1G schedule maker, plopped this one in our schedule as a safety valve. It’s no disrespect to Minnesota. It’s respect to the fact that Fitz has owned the Gophers in his time in Evanston. Should NU beat Minnesota on Saturday, 20% of Fitz’s B1G wins will be at the hands of the Gophers (it’d make it 6 wins out of 30 B1G wins). Think about that. If you want to take that “we beat who we’re supposed to beat, but can’t beat the upper tier” a bit further, more than one-third (10 of 29) of Fitz’s wins are against Minnesota and Indiana (yes, this will be a post later in the week).
Right now, I really don’t care who we are playing. We need a win. Badly. The fact that it is Minnesota ensures only one thing – it’s likely to be closer than we’d want. Here are the six games against Minnesota in the Fitz era:
- 2012 – NU 21-13 – Venric Mark and the ‘Cats explode in the first half, dominate the line of scrimmage and hold off a late rally by Minnesota in a game that seemed much more dominated by NU then the score reflected.
- 2011 – NU 28 -13 – The ‘Cats jumped out to a huge lead in the first quarter with 21 points and never looked back in the most comfortable win of the Fitz era against Jerry Kill in his first season.
- 2010 – NU 29-28 – NU mounted a furious 4th quarter rally including a sick Jeremy Ebert Hail Mary grab to escape Minneapolis with a “w” in the B1G opener.
- 2009 – Minnesota 35-24 – The lone Gopher win against Fitz came in Evanston as Eric Decker put on a clinic. We knew it was going to him and simply couldn’t stop him.
- 2008 – NU 24 – 17 – The most exciting game in the series (Fitz era) as Mike Kafka set a then B1G QB rushing record filling in for the injured C.J. Bacher. The ‘Cats won it on a pick six by Brendan Smith in the waning seconds to upset the #24-ranked Gophers. It was Fitz’s first win against a ranked team.
- 2007 – NU 49-48 (2 OT) – Again, the ‘Cats staged a late rally, this time to force OT, and the ‘Cats denied a 2-point conversion by Tim Brewster who went for the win.
You’d like to think that we’re about to see the most fired up effort by NU of the season. That’s actually a pretty high bar after witnessing the Ohio State performance, but like the fans, there is no way that NU players couldn’t be embarassed by the performance on Saturday. It’s focus time on Minnesota and time to get this season back on track.
Our own Jeffrey Eisenband will be at the press conference today, so stay tuned for some first hand coverage of the ‘Cats as we try to pick the LTP community up a bit this week.