Football: Minnesota Daily writers split on Saturday’s winner

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

It’s another road trip for Northwestern on Saturday, this time to Minnesota to face the Golden Gophers. The Wildcats won last year’s battle 28-13 to gain bowl eligibility for the fifth consecutive year. A win this weekend would make is six straight seasons of six wins or more. The Daily emailed the beat writers from The Minnesota Daily, Dane Mizutani and Sam Gordon, to talk about the Golden Gophers’ uncertainty at quarterback and how the death of a teammate shook Minnesota. As always, their predictions are at the bottom.

The Daily Northwestern: How is the Minnesota offense different under Max Shortell than MarQueis Gray?

Sam Gordon: With MarQueis Gray at quarterback, the Gophers are run heavy. Gray does a good job of running the spread option and he’s dangerous in the open field. He can turn a broken play into a 10-yard gain, and he does it with regularity. Max Shortell is a much better passer and has more of a pocket presence. Minnesota takes more shots down field with Shortell in the game. They still can run the ball, but not nearly as well as with Gray in the game. All in all, the offense is more balanced with Shortell at quarterback. Not necessarily more dangerous, but more balanced.

The Daily: What can the Minnesota defense do to better defend Northwestern’s rushing attack?

Gordon: Minnesota should stack the box and force Trevor Siemian or Kain Colter to beat it through the air. The Gophers have really struggled defending the run this year. Most recently, Iowa running back Mark Weisman ran for 177 yards against Minnesota. Big, physical running backs and offensive lines have historically given the Gophers problems. If they can get the Wildcats into 2nd and longs and 3rd and longs, they’ll have success.

The Daily: How much of an inspiration has Gary Tinsley been to this team this season?

Dane Mizutani: There’s no question Gary Tinsley’s tragic death in early April has inspired the Gophers this season. On the field, the entire team wears a patch with “GT51” on their jerseys in to honor their fallen teammate. Off the field,  a picture of Tinsley is the first thing the team sees before it enters the locker room. This year, linebackers on the squad have also rotated wearing Tinsley’s old number — 51 — each game. Aaron Hill had one of the best games of his career when he adorned 51 on his chest in the Week 4 matchup with Syracuse. Hill recorded 10 tackles and intercepted a crucial pass in the red zone to help propel the Gophers to a 17-0 win. Thus far, linebackers Keanon Cooper, Mike Rallis, Spencer Reeves, Aaron Hill, and Joey Balthazor have worn the number. “There’s no question that a tragedy has taught the kids a lot and the coaches — all of us,” head coach Jerry Kill said. “It certainly has an effect on what’s going on right now.”

The Daily: Who’s the one Golden Gophers player who will have the biggest impact on Saturday?

Mizutani: This weekend A.J. Barker could be the difference in the ballgame for the Gophers. The former walk-on wide receiver has emerged as Minnesota’s top offensive weapon this season and is a go-to target for backup quarterback Max Shortell. MarQueis Gray started the season at quarterback for Minnesota, but has been hampered by a high-ankle sprain over the last month. With Shortell in the game the Gophers offense takes on more of a pass-happy attack. That’s where Barker comes in. His teammates say his biggest strength is his speed and he’s already proved he can beat defenses over the top — he’s amassed four touchdowns this season. Northwestern scores a lot on offense, but its suspect defense leaves the door open for Barker to break out again.

The Daily: What is your prediction for Saturday?

Mizutani: Gophers 27, Northwestern 24. Both teams are fresh off devastating losses and will enter this week’s matchup with redemption in mind. Northwestern’s running attack led by dual-quarterback Kain Colter and lightning-quick running back Venric Mark could cause problems for the Gophers front that has struggled stopping the run this season. However, the Wildcats 95th ranked passing attack could bode well for Minnesota’s secondary that has already intercepted more passes this season than all of last season. Minnesota will need a spark offensively after scoring only 13 points in their loss to Iowa, but a packed crowd for the homecoming game could prove to be the difference this week. If the Gophers jump out to an early lead the game is theirs to win.

Gordon: Northwestern 27, Minnesota 24. The ‘Cats get Kain Colter involved early and often and Northwestern kicks a late field goal for the win.