|No. 23 Northwestern's win streak on line vs. Minnesota|
Following a 31-7 loss to then fourth-ranked Penn State on Oct. 7, Northwestern sat at 2-3 and had yet to notch a conference win. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said afterward that the team had backed "itself into a corner."
Following a five-game win streak, which included an FBS record three consecutive overtime victories, the Wildcats sit 23rd in the College Football Playoff rankings, and are far from that proverbial corner.
While he likely did not expect five overtime periods over the course of three games, Fitzgerald is not surprised by his team's resilience.
"Sometimes, you'll go through it, and embrace it, and you won't get the results," Fitzgerald said. "That happens too. ... I don't think (giving up) is in our guys' DNA. I just don't. At least in my 18 years that I've been here, I haven't seen a guy give up ever. I just don't think that's a Northwestern man."
The Wildcats (7-3, 5-2 Big Ten) seek to extend their win streak when they host Minnesota on Saturday in their final home game of the season.
The Gophers are coming off arguably their best game under first-year coach P.J. Fleck with a 54-21 victory over Nebraska. The 54 points were the most scored by Minnesota against a Big Ten opponent since 2006.
"It was the execution," Fleck said.
"It looked like we were more experienced than we really are. It looked like we've been doing it for a long time. That's what was different about last week. That was the first time all year we played a complete game. That's what it's supposed to look like."
Minnesota (5-5, 2-5) is one win away from becoming bowl eligible. Getting that victory won't be easy. After playing a hot Northwestern team this week, the Gophers finish on the road against currently unbeaten Wisconsin.
As for Northwestern, the Wildcats on Saturday will send off eight starting seniors, including running back Justin Jackson, who is the school's leader in career touchdowns (39).
"When you get older, you kind of enjoy it a lot more," Jackson said of his time at Northwestern.
"I know all of us have really been enjoying this year and it just flew by. It's a tough thing, because obviously you don't want this brotherhood to come to an end, but it has to, so I think for all of us, it's just really enjoying the moments."
Minnesota has been hot and cold this season in trying to acclimate to Fleck's spread offense. The Golden Gophers average 21 pass attempts per game and nearly 45 rushing attempts, and have four ball carriers with at least 300 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Rodney Smith leads the team in attempts (195) and rushing yards (799), and Kobe McCrary has a team-best eight rushing touchdowns in addition to 407 yards on 72 carries.
Fitzgerald discussed the challenges in facing multiple ball carriers in a spread offense.
"Number one, you've got to fit gaps right," Fitzgerald said.
"You've got to be sound with what you're doing and have coordination between the front and the back end. You're going to have a lot of one-on-ones, so you're going to have to tackle well, and then they do a really good job with their run-pass option if your back seven gets involved."
Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft helped the Gophers rack up 514 yards of offense, including 409 yards rushing, last week against the Cornhuskers.
Croft, after an up-and-down season in which he was suspended, was named the Big Ten co-Offensive Player of the Week. He is playing with more confidence, Fleck said.
"You can see the difference in his demeanor," Fleck said. "You see the difference in his pocket presence."
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is a veteran with pocket presence. He ranks second in the Big Ten in passing at 258.3 yards per game, and he has rushed for five touchdowns over the Wildcats' five-game winning streak.
Thorson will face a tough test against Minnesota, which ranks third in the conference in passing yards allowed per game (183.9).
"They've got an explosive offense," Fleck said of the Wildcats.
"I think they're the hottest team in the Big Ten right now when you start to look at what they've done, how they've won -- three overtime victories, five straight -- and their quarterback, Thorson, is playing at an incredibly high level as of late. He's one of the reasons they continue to win. They've got a ton of experience."