Three Points: Northwestern-Minnesota

Three Points: Northwestern-Minnesota

Three things to watch in Saturday's game, by Brian De Los Santos.

This season started out with aspirations of a Big Ten championship.

Now, that goal is looking a bit more challenging.

To get to that seemingly bleak destination, the Wildcats will likely have to rip off win after win all the way to Indianapolis, and that road starts this Saturday when Northwestern hosts Minnesota at Ryan Field.

The Wildcats have two-straight losses to thank for their position in the standings. But after the Wildcats' most recent 35-6 loss to Wisconsin last weekend, head coach Pat Fitzgerald remains confident in his locker room.

"We recruit high character guys who have great belief and trust in who they are," Fitzgerald said during this week's Big Ten coaches conference call. "They'll come back and play well, I'll promise you that."

Against Minnesota, they'll need to. Here are three things to watch:

Playing for their leader
Minnesota playing without head coach for second straight week

It's no doubt that Minnesota's minds may be on more than just football this Saturday.

And that's more than understandable.

Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill announced last week that he would be taking time away from the team to better manage his epilepsy, according to the university. He suffered a game-day seizure against Western Illinois earlier this season and was taken to a local hospital. He also reportedly suffered a seizure prior to the Gophers' last game against Michigan.

"This was a difficult decision to make, but the right decision," Kill said in a statement. "Every decision that will be made will be in the best interest of the players and the program. I look forward to returning to the Minnesota sideline on a full-time basis soon."

The Gophers fell 42-13 to Michigan in their first game without their head coach, but coming off a bye week, it will be interesting to see how Minnesota plays without Kill for the second straight game.

The beast
Playing against defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman According to interim head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, Hageman hasn't played his best this season.

"I think he's continuing to improve and we're looking forward to seeing him during the last half of the season," Claeys said.

It's scary, partly because Hageman has looked pretty good operating south of his full potential. He stands at a looming 6-foot-6, 311 pounds on the defensive line. And while the numbers haven't been there (he finished last season with six sacks), he is popping up all over the Internet as one a top-10 defensive lineman in the country.

"People have to spend a little more time with him because he is strong," Claeys said. "When you have that, it opens up opportunities for other players."

He entered the season tabbed as second most athletic player in the country by Bruce Feldman (No. 1 being Jadeveon Clowney), and has just 23 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss this season.

But seriously, stopping the run
Northwestern's struggles on the defensive side of the ball

This is nothing new.

Ohio State exposed the vulnerability, it continued against Wisconsin, and with Sean McEvilly out yet again, it may continue against Minnesota.

But in college football, the cliché is almost always about depth, and the Wildcats are in dire need to prove it.

In terms of numbers, Minnesota is nowhere near the rushing powerhouse that Wisconsin is. The Gophers average 216 yards per game and have four different rushers with 200 yards or more. David Cobb leads the team with 374 and five touchdowns.

And of course, that starts up front.

"Their offensive line is another typical big, big, athletic offensive line in the Big Ten," Fitzgerald said. "So we're going to need to play physical and play much better than we did last Saturday if we expect to compete to win."

During the past two weeks, the Wildcats surrendered a total of 534 yards on the ground, 248 to Ohio State and 286 to Wisconsin. But despite the gaudy numbers, Fitzgerald refuses to see that as a trend.

"Sometimes you don't have your ‘A' game with you," he said. "You prefer not to ever have that happen, but this group is resilient, has great character and I know they'll respond."

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