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    The Skip Report: Against Minnesota, Plans for a "12-Man Operation"

    Christian Jones is part of a wide receiving corps with something to prove Saturday vs. Minnesota.

    Christian Jones is part of a wide receiving corps with something to prove Saturday vs. Minnesota.

    Oct. 18, 2013

    Northwestern returns to the comforts of Ryan Field Saturday when it hosts Minnesota (11 a.m., ESPN2, WGN720) looking to secure its first conference win of the season, and Skip Myslenski's Friday Report addresses just what it will take to do so:

    BAGGING IT: Before their game last Saturday at Wisconsin, 'Cats quarterbacks had thrown 137 times and been sacked just a dozen. Doing the math, that means they were brought down just once every 12.5 attempts. But on that afternoon in Madison, they threw 39 times and were sacked seven. Doing that math, that means they were brought down once every 6.5 attempts.

    "I understand that sacks always get put on the O-line. But if we get rid of the ball on time, if we run good routes, it's a 12-man operation," Pat Fitzgerald commented, including the coaching staff that calls and draw up plays in his analysis.

    "There's some things the O-line's got to do better. But guys got to get open when the route and the concept call for them to get open and the quarterback's got to get the ball out of his hands. There were times when we were trying to scramble and all we had to do was throw the ball away and it's not a sack ... It looked to me that there were two times when our offensive line got beat off the video. So I'm not going to overanalyze it, especially when you're down three scores and you're throwing the ball as much as we were."



    "We came out pretty well," center Brandon Vitabile said of the offense's overall struggles against the Badgers. "We had that early pick, but we came right back from it. We had a (defensive) stop, we had a nice drive. We felt we were doing an OK job. Then things kind of snowballed on us and we were getting second-and-long, third-and-unmanageable. That stuff doesn't help you. We've got to do a better job of helping ourselves succeed."

    HOLDING ON: A month ago, after the `Cats game with Maine, wideout Tony Jones was discussing a Kain Colter pass that went off his hands and into those of Black Bears corner Axel Ofori. "I've got to make that play," he said back then. "In order to win these games, now looking forward to the Big Ten season, those are the types of plays that you've got to make."

    But those were just the types of plays they did not make against the Badgers, which was another reason their offense failed to score a touchdown for the first time since 2006. Instead, said Fitzgerald, "We had way too many drops. That's the bottom line. Those balls are caught, it's a different momentum for our offense. We had three turnovers, should have had two more. We had our hands on the ball twice that should have been interceptions. In heavyweight battles like that, those are momentum plays you have to make. It could be just a simple little out-cut, but that's a first down and you're keeping the ball moving and you're keeping our defense off the field.

    "You've got to pitch and catch. We should be able to do that all day."

    • Both Colter and running back Venric Mark are listed as questionable on the weekly injury report for the Cats' game Saturday with Minnesota. Ruled out for the third straight game is starting defensive tackle Sean McEvilly.

    • The 4-2 Gophs are coming off a bye-week. In their last outing, they lost by 29 at Michigan. The Gopher offense favors the run, which they do with a committee of backs. On the season they are averaging 215.8 rushing yards a game and just 116.8 passing, and have scored 16 rushing touchdowns while managing only three through the air. Notably, only one of the latter has gone to a wide receiver. The other two have gone to redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams, who had a breakout game against the Wolverines with five catches for 54 yards and one of those TDs.

    • Minnesota has trotted out a pair of starting quarterbacks this season, but announced earlier this week that redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner would get the nod against the `Cats. He also started in Ann Arbor, where he went 14-of-21 for 145 yards and a touchdown; rushed 18 times for a team-best 66 yards; lost a fumble and threw an interception.

    • Sophomore Phillip Nelson, the Gophs' other quarterback, started their first three games. "We'll have the plans to try to work both of them in (against the 'Cats)," Tracy Claeys, their acting head coach, said.

    • Claeys is guiding the Gophs in the absence of Jerry Kill, who has taken time off to focus on managing and treating his epilepsy. "There's no one more respected and more loved by our coaching fraternity in the Big Ten than Jerry," Fitzgerald said of Kill, whom he has known since the latter's days of guiding Northern Illinois. "We feel for him, but he'll be back. He's proven that."

    • Claeys is also the Gophers defensive coordinator and his unit is anchored by a pair of big bodies, the 6-foot-6, 311-pound Ra'Shede Hageman and the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Cameron Botticelli. "Number one, I'm really gland he's a senior," Fitzgerald said when asked about Hageman. "It seems like he's been there since Brendan (his four-year old son) has been alive and I think he has. Geez. He's been a disruptive force." On the Gopher defense as a whole, he said, "They're a 4-3 attack style defense, meaning they're going to play a lot of man (on pass coverage). Those guys are going to attack up front. Their linebackers play fast. They try to make you play a little left-handed."

    • Fitzgerald is 5-1 against the Gophs as the 'Cats head coach.

    AND FINALLY: Fitzgerald, from earlier this week, on the sense of urgency his `Cats should feel coming off two straight defeats: "We've got a lot of football left, but it's going real fast. As I told the guys today, for the seniors, they've got just five Tuesday practices left in their career guaranteed. When you put it in that kind of perspective it gives a big sense of reality of where you're at in the season and what we need to do."


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