Preview: Gophers tunnel into Evanston for opener

Danny Daly

If the last two meetings between Northwestern and Minnesota are any indication, expect a thriller at Ryan Field this weekend.

“It’s going to be a good one, just like it was last year,” senior safety Brad Phillips said.

The Wildcats beat the Golden Gophers both times in games that went down to the wire. In 2007, NU won 49-48 in a double-overtime shootout that featured nine passing touchdowns, more than 1,100 yards of total offense and a Cats rally from a 35-14 deficit. Last year, then-backup quarterback Mike Kafka’s 217 rushing yards and safety Brandon Smith’s interception return for a touchdown with 12 seconds left fueled a 24-17 upset victory over No. 17 Minnesota.

Almost all the key players from that matchup are back. The Gophers return all but two starters, Smith and most of his defensive teammates are still on the roster and Kafka has been elevated to the top of the depth chart.

The two teams are both looking to bounce back from a loss in their last game and enter Saturday’s Big Ten opener with identical 2-1 records. One week after getting burned by Syracuse wide receiver Mike Williams for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns, NU’s defense faces the challenge of shutting down Eric Decker, who ranks third in the nation in receiving yards and fourth in catches. Decker and junior quarterback Adam Weber have hooked up for a score twice this season. The duo also produced a touchdown in each of the last two games against the Cats.

“I haven’t seen anybody shut Eric down,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s going to be a great challenge. I don’t think you’re going to stop them. You’ve got to slow them down and make plays when you’re in position to make them.”

Minnesota’s offense has more than just Weber and Decker – it has a pair of sophomore running backs in Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge, who topped 650 rushing yards last season. The unit is adjusting to a new scheme implemented this offseason by first-year offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who had served as the receivers coach for the Denver Broncos.

After the Syracuse game, Fitzgerald underscored the importance of winning the turnover battle. That won’t be easy against a Minnesota team that doesn’t make many mistakes.

“They’re sound in everything that they do,” Fitzgerald said.

The Cats hope they will have the services of cornerback Sherrick McManis and middle linebacker Nate Williams, two starters that were sidelined with injuries against Syracuse.

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