By Jordan Ray
The past three football games between the Northwestern Wildcats and Minnesota Golden Gophers have been tight, defensive struggles, and Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said to expect more of the same this weekend.
“Over the years, this has always been a hard-fought battle,” Fitzgerald told reporters Monday. “I don’t expect anything different this week.”
Minnesota has won the past two games in the series, with last year’s victory coming off a fourth quarter kickoff return for a touchdown.
This year’s matchup, which serves as the Big Ten opener for both teams, features a pair of proven defenses coupled with struggling offenses.
“Nobody is scoring points against them,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said of Northwestern during a press conference Monday. “So we’ve got a great challenge ahead of us.”
Allowing only 8.8 points per game, the Wildcats (4-0) own the nation’s third-best scoring defense, according to ESPN. They also rank second in the country in defensive efficiency.
“I have full confidence that [our defense] will hold any team we face under 10 points,” sophomore running back Justin Jackson said.
The Gophers (3-1) held No. 4 TCU’s high-powered offense to only 23 points in Minnesota’s lone loss of the season. The Horned Frogs have averaged 60.3 points per game in their three games since.
“Minnesota embodies everything that Jerry Kill is about,” Fitzgerald said. “Defensively, they’re outstanding. They’re one of the best, if not the best, in the Big Ten.”
While the defenses have excelled, the offenses have been inconsistent. Both teams rank in the bottom fourth of the country in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN.
“Obviously, we’ve struggled a little bit, and we’re not happy with where we are as far as our red zone efficiency,” senior guard Shane Mertz said, “but we’re working, and we will fix that.”
Part of that inconsistency stems from injuries. Kill recently described his team as having an injury list “a mile long.”
“There’s a lot of people decimated by injuries right now, and we’ve certainly been hit hard,” Kill told reporters Monday. “So we’ve got to work and do a heck of a job teaching the guys that are going to have to play Saturday to get better.”
The Wildcats had four players suffer injuries in their win over Ball State, including veteran left tackle Geoff Mogus, whose status for Saturday remains unclear.
“Now, I’m in the situation where I may not be playing next to the same guy I played next to last week,” Mertz said.
Senior defensive end Deonte Gibson said Northwestern’s nonconference schedule has prepared them for Saturday’s challenge.
“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,” Gibson said.
Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. from Ryan Field. The game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.