Preview: Gophers @ Northwestern 18 Nov 11

Winner of three straight games, Northwestern has started entertaining the prospects of playing in a bowl game.

The Wildcats, now 5-5 and 2-4 in the Big Ten Conference, have rebounded from a five-game losing streak to put themselves in good position after wins over Iowa, Nebraska and Rice. However, the Wildcats can’t afford to stumble in their Nov. 19 home game against lowly Minnesota. The Golden Gophers, under first-year coach Jerry Kill, haven’t been so golden with an overall record of 2-8 and 1-5 in conference. If the Wildcats lose, they must win at Michigan State in their final regular season game.

“We want to win two games in a row to finish it out and make it a November to remember,” linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo said. “We know this will make us bowl-eligible.”

The Wildcats seem to be viable candidates for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 31 in San Francisco, the Dec. 30 New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium and the Jan. 2 TicketCity Bowl. The Wildcats have to take care of business first, entering the Minnesota game more than a two-touchdown favorite.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald gushed over Minnesota’s special teams. The Gophers have seven kick returns of 30-plus yards, tying for the conference lead. But they rank last in scoring, 18.1 points per game, and 11th in scoring defense, allowing 34.5 points per game.

Fitzgerald didn’t seem bothered by quarterback Dan Persa’s two interceptions last week against Rice. Persa was questionable for the game after injuring his shoulder, but managed to throw for four touchdowns. Fitzgerald said the wide receivers have to be more aggressive.

“I want to see those guys go up and get that football,” Fitzgerald said. “That was my biggest disappointment. I’ve watched other receivers get those (kinds) of balls against us. We left our big-boy pads in Lincoln (after the Wildcats’ 28-25 upset of Nebraska on Nov. 5).”

The Wildcats have been racking up several big plays during their winning streak, but the defense is the main reason for the turnaround. After a loss at Iowa, where several players blamed communication problems, the Wildcats have given up an average of 121 yards rushing in their last two games, while holding Rice to six points.

“The largest difference would just be experience,” safety Ibraheim Campbell said. “It’s learning from the mistakes I made earlier in the season and just making the best out of the opportunities that we’re getting now. It’s basically just learning and growing as a player.”

Fitzgerald said the coaching staff made some adjustments that helped over the last few games.

“Well as we were looking at what we do defensively, we put the first responsibility on ourselves as coaches,” said Fitzgerald. “Every team is different; every defense is a little bit different. Some of the things that we were able to be successful with in the past, we weren’t able to be successful with this year. So as we were looking inward and taking responsibility for that, we try to do things that our players do well.”

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NCAAF Team Report – Northwestern – NOTES, QUOTES

–Northwestern can become bowl eligible for the fifth straight season with a victory over 2-8 Minnesota.

–By beating Rice, Northwestern’s 2011 senior class became the all-time winningest five-year class in school history with 35 wins.

–WR Jeremy Ebert has set career bests for single-game receiving yards the last two games, catching six passes for 147 yards at Nebraska, then added 208 yards on seven catches against Rice. He caught touchdowns receptions of 90 and 81 yards in the last two games.

SERIES HISTORY: Minnesota leads 50-32-5 (last meeting, 2010, 29-28 NU).

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Kain Colter-Dan Persa combination remains one of the best in the country. Since Persa returned from an injury in the Illinois game, the Wildcats have led the conference in passing yards per game at 261.0. The Wildcats rank second in total offense with an average of 458.7 yards per game and second in passing efficiency (162.8).

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Extra film work has helped the Wildcats improve since a bad showing at Iowa. The extra sessions have helped the younger players get a better understanding of the defense. The Wildcats limited Rice to six points, while holding their opponents to an average of 121 yards rushing in the last two games. “After so many bad things have happened to you,” safety Ibraheim Campbell said. “You basically realize what you need to fix. You just got to make the most out of what you see and what you experience.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: “We’ve seen a lot of improvement just by communicating. We haven’t had many miscues on communications in the game so far.” — Northwestern linebacker Chi Chi Ariguizo.

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NCAAF Team Report – Northwestern – STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK’S GAME: Minnesota at Northwestern, Nov. 19 — The middle game of a three-game homestand that will close out the regular season for the Wildcats. A win makes Northwestern bowl eligible for a school-record fifth straight season.

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Golden Gophers have a quality special teams unit. The Wildcats don’t want to allow the visitors to grab some momentum with big returns. Minnesota tops the conference with seven kick returns of 30-plus yards. Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa should be excited to battle Minnesota’s defense, which ranks 11th in the conference in scoring defense.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

WR Jeremy Ebert — He has been putting up monster numbers the last two games. Ebert has 355 receiving yards in wins over Nebraska and Rice, catching touchdown passes of 81 and 90 yards. Ebert is a big-play threat thatMinnesota’s fragile defense must contain.

QB Dan Persa — Didn’t show any problems from his shoulder injury at Nebraska. With another week of therapy, Persa might need to ice his right shoulder this time with the Wildcats expected to test Minnesota’s weak secondary.

LB Collin Ellis — Has been a mainstay at linebacker during the conference season. He has started all six Big Ten games, compiling 21 tackles with two and a half tackles for a loss.

ROSTER REPORT

–The Wildcats can become bowl eligible for a fifth straight season with a win over Minnesota.

–TE Drake Dunsmore was named one of eight semifinalists for the 2011 John Mackey Award, which was given to the nation’s top tight end.