Analysis: Breaking down the Gophers’ final six regular-season games

The University of Minnesota football team is halfway through its 12-game season and currently sits at 4-2 heading into this weekend’s bye. When the Gophers began the year 4-0 in nonconference play, it seemed all but certain that they would win two games in the Big Ten to secure a berth in a bowl game. However, after one-sided losses to Iowa and Michigan, that task appears steeper. The rest of Minnesota’s schedule is far from a cakewalk, and two or more wins won’t come easily. Here is a look at the Gophers’ remaining six games with analysis of how each game could go either way.

At Northwestern, Oct. 19

After this weekend’s bye, the Gophers travel to Evanston, Ill., to take on Northwestern. The Wildcats are currently 4-1 overall and ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Minnesota has lost the last three meetings against Northwestern and has dropped five of the last six meetings, dating back to 2007.

WHY THE GOPHERS COULD WIN: Northwestern’s defense is, for the most part, very average. The Wildcats have given up an average of 27 points per game through their first five games. They let Maine, an FCS school, score 21 points in mid-September, while Syracuse put up 27 points on Northwestern. Simply put, it’s definitely possible to score against the Wildcats, who rank fourth-to-last in the Big Ten in points allowed — a number inflated slightly by last weekend’s 40-30 loss to Ohio State. While the Gophers have yet to establish a consistent passing game, that could happen against Northwestern, which ranks dead last in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed (286.6 per game). If Minnesota’s aerial attack can get off the ground, that could open things up for the rest of the offense in what could be a high-scoring affair.

WHY THE GOPHERS MIGHT LOSE: Northwestern could possibly contend for a Big Ten title this season. The Wildcats nearly beat Ohio State this past weekend before the Buckeyes pulled away in the final minute to seal the win. Still, Northwestern boasts an offense that averages 39 points per game and has a balanced attack. The Wildcats also like to mix things up with a two-quarterback system, executing that type of offense perhaps just as good as any team in college football. While quarterback Trevor Siemian throws nearly twice as often as Kain Colter, Northwestern will use Colter in plenty of running situations (253 rushing yards, four touchdowns). Meanwhile, the Wildcats’ defense leads the Big Ten in interceptions, having already picked off 11 passes through five games (Minnesota has five interceptions through six games). If the Gophers’ young quarterbacks — whether it’s Mitch Leidner or Philip Nelson — get picked apart by the ballhawking Wildcats defense, it could be a long day for Minnesota offensively.

vs. Nebraska, Oct. 26

The Cornhuskers are off to a 4-1 start, but have shown signs that they might be vulnerable. Minnesota has yet to beat Nebraska since it joined the Big Ten. In fact, the Huskers have owned this matchup in recent years, having won the last 16 games against the Gophers. That drought, which dates back to 1963, is one Minnesota would love to finally end this year.

WHY THE GOPHERS COULD WIN: As good as Nebraska’s offense has been, its defense remains a bit suspect. The Huskers have the second-worst pass defense in the Big Ten and have allowed the fourth-most rushing yards of all conference teams. Minnesota’s rushing attack has been the strong point of its offense. So if the Gophers can take advantage of a soft Nebraska run defense, Minnesota might have success moving the ball and putting up points. Plus, that five-decade losing streak has to come to an end eventually, right?

WHY THE GOPHERS MIGHT LOSE: History is not on the Gophers’ side with this matchup. As mentioned earlier, it’s been more than 50 years since the last time Minnesota beat Nebraska. The Huskers have won easily each of the past two years, beating the Gophers 41-14 in Minneapolis in 2011 and by a 38-14 final last year in Lincoln. Nebraska’s offense has been one of the best in the nation this year, scoring 42.4 points per game. The key for the Huskers has been their ground game, led by star running back Ameer Abdullah (690 yards, five touchdowns). His 138 yards per game ranks second among all Big Ten players. Minnesota will have to find a way to slow Abdullah down. If the Gophers can’t do that, Nebraska will grind Minnesota’s defense down.

At Indiana, Nov. 2

The Hoosiers are a bit of an enigma so far this year. They’re 3-2 with three convincing wins and losses to Navy and Missouri. Indiana’s offense is one of the highest-scoring in the nation, but its defense has had trouble stopping teams. At any rate, the Gophers have beaten Indiana in three of the last four meetings, including a win in Bloomington in 2005. This year’s game will be Minnesota’s first against Indiana since the Gophers won 16-7 in 2008 at the Metrodome.

WHY THE GOPHERS COULD WIN: As previously mentioned, Indiana’s defense has had a hard time stopping anybody. In their two losses, the Hoosiers allowed 41 and 45 points. The 31 points per game allowed by Indiana is second-to-last in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers are particularly bad against the run, surrendering a whopping 212.2 rushing yards per game, easily the worst in the conference. Minnesota’s best key to success will be a consistent running game that eats up yards and chews time off the clock to keep the Hoosiers’ high-powered offense off the field. That’s what the Gophers did against San Jose State, and it might be the recipe for a victory against Indiana.

WHY THE GOPHERS MIGHT LOSE: There aren’t many teams that pass the ball better than Indiana, which has racked up 346 yards per game through the air. While most Big Ten teams focus on the run first, the Hoosiers instead do their damage with the passing game. Sophomore quarterback Nate Sudfeld leads the Big Ten in passing and is 16th in the nation in passing yards per game (293.4). His 13 passing touchdowns are tied for the conference lead. Sudfeld doesn’t have just one weapon to throw to, either. Five different Hoosiers receivers have at least 14 catches through five games. By comparison, Minnesota has just one player with that many catches in six games. Only Missouri was truly able to slow down Indiana’s passing attack, as Sudfeld threw three interceptions in that loss. If the Gophers can’t follow the Tigers’ lead, it could spell trouble for Minnesota.

vs. Penn State, Nov. 9

One of Minnesota’s four trophy games, the Gophers and Nittany Lions have battled for the Governor’s Victory Bell since 1993. But Minnesota hasn’t won the trophy since 2004, with Penn State winning the last four meetings. The Nittany Lions, who are in the middle of a four-year postseason ban, are off to a 3-2 start and lost to Indiana to open Big Ten play. Penn State will face two ranked opponents (Michigan and Ohio State) as well as Illinois before traveling to Minneapolis in early November.

WHY THE GOPHERS COULD WIN: After a surprising 8-4 season last year, Penn State appears to have taken a step backward in 2013. The Nittany Lions rank in the middle of the Big Ten in seemingly every offensive and defensive category. Of its three remaining home games at TCF Bank Stadium, this matchup will be the one that could truly feel like home field advantage for Minnesota. It’s also one that looks — at least on paper — to be a winnable game for the Gophers. Penn State lacks a potent running game, meaning Minnesota’s defense should be able to key on the Nittany Lions’ passing attack. Field position could also help swing things in the Gophers’ favor; PSU is 10th in the Big Ten in punting yards and has also struggled on kickoff coverage. Shortening the field for its offense would be an extra boost for Minnesota.

WHY THE GOPHERS MIGHT LOSE: Penn State has one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten in Allen Robinson, who leads the conference in yards per game (124.2) and receptions per game (7.6). If Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg gets into a rhythm early and connects with Robinson, the Nittany Lions could take advantage of a Gophers secondary that has been suspect at times this year. On the flip side, PSU has had success stopping the pass on defense, so Minnesota’s already anemic passing attack might struggle more than normal.

vs. Wisconsin, Nov. 23

Along with Iowa, the Badgers are one of the Gophers’ most hated rivals. In fact, Minnesota and Wisconsin have the longest-running series of all FBS teams, dating back 122 games to 1890. The winner of this annual rivalry is awarded Paul Bunyan’s Axe, a prize the Gophers haven’t won since 2003. The Badgers have won the last nine matchups, but Minnesota is hoping to have the Axe back in its possession.

WHY THE GOPHERS COULD WIN: Wisconsin’s passing offense is very reliant upon one player, and that’s senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. Outside of Abbrederis (who averages 114.4 receiving yards per game), the Badgers don’t have another reliable wideout for quarterback Joel Stave. Jordan Frederick is second among Wisconsin wide receivers in catches — with six. If Minnesota’s secondary can shut down Abbrederis, that would make Wisconsin’s offense very one-dimensional. This is the Gophers’ final home game of the year, which always adds an emotional factor. Minnesota has won three of its last four home finales and may need this victory to boost its chances at a bowl game.

WHY THE GOPHERS MIGHT LOSE: No other team in the Big Ten can run the ball like the Badgers. In fact, only five other teams in the nation have gained more rushing yards per game than Wisconsin (300.6). The Badgers are led by a two-headed running back tandem of Melvin Gordon and James White, who collectively have already rushed for over 1,100 yards in five games. If Minnesota can’t slow that duo down, the Badgers will run all over the Gophers’ defense — just like they did last year when Wisconsin ran for 337 yards in a 38-13 victory. On top of a solid running game, Wisconsin’s defense has been stout so far in 2013, allowing just 14.6 points and 272.6 yards of offense per game.

At Michigan State, Nov. 30

At this point of the schedule, Minnesota may still be a win away from that elusive sixth victory needing to secure a spot in a bowl game. That adds extra importance to the regular-season finale against a Spartans team that has won the last three meetings against the Gophers.

WHY THE GOPHERS COULD WIN: The Spartans don’t have much of a passing game to speak of. Their 178.4 passing yards per game ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten, ahead of only the Gophers. Needless to say, there might not be much of an aerial display in this game. Michigan State has also struggled to convert on third downs, something Minnesota has struggled to stop in its first two Big Ten games. Getting off the field on third down will be key for the Gophers’ defense. On top of that, MSU is the most-penalized team in the Big Ten, while Minnesota is the least penalized. Avoid costly penalties and taking advantage of a few key Spartans miscues could give the Gophers momentum.

WHY THE GOPHERS MIGHT LOSE: There aren’t many defense like Michigan State’s, which will likely be the toughest Minnesota faces all season. The Spartans currently have the top defense in the nation, allowing a meager 203.8 yards per game. The most points MSU has allowed in its first five games 17 — once in a 17-13 loss to No. 22 Notre Dame, the other to Youngstown State in a 55-17 rout. Perhaps the most astounding defense statistic is that the Spartans give up just 51.2 yards per game on the ground — 35 yards fewer than the second-best defense in the Big Ten. Minnesota had trouble running the ball against Iowa in its Big Ten opener, but the Gophers will be in for an even tougher challenge against this Spartans front seven. MSU’s secondary isn’t too shabby, either: the 152.6 passing yards per game given up by the Spartans also leads the Big Ten. Simply put, nothing comes easy against this Michigan State defense.

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