Unreliable Favorites: Fade Northwestern Against Minnesota

Minnesota Golden Gophers player in action

Rainman M.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 4:53 PM UTC

Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 4:53 PM UTC

No. 25 Northwestern (7-3) hosts Minnesota (5-5) Saturday at Noon ET. The Wildcats are favored by 7 or 7.5 points.

 Free NCAAF Pick: Minnesota +7.5Best Line Offered: Heritage

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Minnesota Golden Gophers vs Northwestern Wildcats  

Northwestern lacks the offensive firepower to be a reliable favorite of 7+ points in a conference game. They did barely cover as 6.5 point favorites against Purdue last week, but were out-gained in yardage and benefited from Purdue missing a field goal on one drive and not scoring from Northwestern's 4 yard line on another.

Northwestern's offense boasts two NFL-caliber players, quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson. But poor blocking and the inability to replace Austin Carr at wide receiver have hindered offensive production. Neither star can compensate for the lack of offensive support.

Thorson has already thrown 11 interceptions, 2 more than last year. He is reluctant to throw the deep pass and predictably relies on the shorter passing game. Even with shorter passes his accuracy can be spotty: in 5 of his last 6 games, he has completed less than 60% of his passes.

But finding open receivers is also difficult when they lack the quickness required in a spread offense to achieve separation from defensive backs.

Furthermore, the offensive line has struggled to open lanes for Jackson, who has averaged more than 3 yards per carry once in the past 4 games.

Minnesota's defensive line has overcome previous injuries by developing the former tight end, freshman Nate Umlor, as a defensive end, and achieving cohesion as a unit. They have held the past three opposing rush attacks outside the top 50 in YPC to either .1 above their season average in YPC or below their season average. Northwestern ranks 106th with 3.6 YPC.

Linebackers Jon Celestin and Thomas Barber lead Minnesota in tackles. They set the pace on defense and combine leadership with physicality.

Quarterback Demry Croft's mobility and stronger arm made him the right choice to start for the Gophers. He proved himself in his execution of coach PJ Fleck's spread option against Nebraska.

Northwestern's defense isn't porous like Nebraska's. However, Croft's versatility is a skill that Northwestern's defense consistently struggled with.

The Wildcats gave up 41 points in week 2 to Duke, when dual-threat quarterback Daniel Jones threw for 300+ yards and ran for 100+. The Wildcats have improved defensively against the dual-threat, but not against quarterback mobility.  Michigan State's Brian Lewerke was hurried 6 times by Northwestern's defense but only sacked once. He did not achieve many rushing yards. But he was consistently able to buy himself time in the pocket and he threw for a season-high 445 yards. When he needed to, such as on a key 4th down, he was able to run for a first down.

Croft, even more so than Lewerke, can scramble and buy himself time. Northwestern's secondary is so decimated with injury, and they are consequently so conservative out of fear of allowing the big play, that Croft can succeed in finding open passing lanes, especially underneath, and especially to leading playmaker Tyler Johnson.

A pair of bruising running backs supports Croft, Rodney Smith and Duke McCrary. Smith has averaged 5+ YPC in 3 of the past 4 games, McCrary averages 5.7 on the season.

The Verdict

Minnesota, which has covered 6 of its last 8 games against Northwestern, will get its best chance of achieving bowl eligibility in a game that should be decided by less than a touchdown. Thorson and Jackson are unable to carry Northwestern's offense alone. Minnesota, between the mobile Croft, Johnson and its deep corps of running backs, is more dynamic and will lead the Gophers' upset bid on our NCAAF Picks.

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