Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MINNEAPOLIS -- Greetings from the Metrodome, or, as I affectionately call it, the Hump Dump. Sorry, but after touring TCF Bank Stadium on Friday afternoon, I can't wait to see Minnesota move out of this place.
It isn't all bad, though. Going through the revolving doors is fun, and the football press box has some of the best sightlines around.
Kind of a sleepy atmosphere around the stadium today, largely due to the 11 a.m. local time kickoff. Minnesotans take Halloween seriously, folks. There were some interesting costumes around my hotel last night. A guy dressed up as an Olympic speed skater gets high marks. It takes a real man to wear Spandex in public.
I stayed in the same hotel as Northwestern and rode the elevator with about 15 players this morning. Despite concerns about the weight limit, we made it safely, and running back Omar Conteh looked ready to go.
Conteh and junior quarterback Mike Kafka are expected to start for the Wildcats, who enter the game at 6-2 but come off a devastating loss at Indiana. A source told me quarterback C.J. Bacher (hamstring) will play only in an emergency situation. Bacher is on the field warming up, though. The key for Northwestern's new-look starting backfield will be ball security, as Minnesota leads the nation in both takeaways (24) and turnover margin (plus-1.88).
Minnesota comes in at 7-1 and is quite possibly the biggest surprise in the country after a 1-11 campaign in 2007. The Gophers look for their second victory against a team with a winning record and try to march closer toward a once-unthinkable January bowl game.
Here are some things I'll be watching today:
- Minnesota's defense. How do the Gophers do it? The nation's worst unit in 2007 has led the turnaround this fall. The Gophers emphasize takeaways at every Tuesday practice, and I'm interested to see how these guys consistently make plays. Junior college transfers Tramaine Brock and Traye Simmons will be on my radar, and defensive end Willie VanDeSteeg likely will be applying the pressure on Kafka.
- Both offensive lines. In many ways, both teams have survived problems with these groups. Minnesota has been banged up pretty much all season but continues to protect quarterback Adam Weber and move the ball. Northwestern has the youngest and least experienced line in the Big Ten, which has made Mick McCall's play calling more conservative. Both teams boast strong pass-rushers (VanDeSteeg, Corey Wootton and John Gill for Northwestern), so the line that protects better likely wins the game.
- Coaching. Northwestern will have to tweak its offensive scheme for Kafka and likely will use more option and designed quarterback runs. Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz might have some surprises today as he tries to force mistakes from the very disciplined Gophers offense. It wouldn't shock me if Minnesota defensive coordinator Ted Roof heavily blitzes Kafka, forcing him to make quick decisions.