Bulldogs pose 'fun challenge' for Wildcats

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Bulldogs pose 'fun challenge' for Wildcats

Defensive back Johnthan Banks is considered one of the schools all-time greats at Mississippi State.The Bulldogs All-American is just one of several challenges Northwestern must ponder as it prepares for their Jan. 1 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.They have enough wrinkles to make you turn grey, and they've got great SEC speed, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. Were going to have our best couple of weeks of preparation to be ready. But our guys are hungry for it.Last week Banks captured the Jim Thorpe Award, awarded to the nations top defensive back. Hes the fourth straight Southeastern Conference player to win the award, and the first from Mississippi State.Banks is tied for sixth nationally with six career interceptions returned for touchdowns and is No. 1 in all-time career interception yards (320). The Walter Camp All-American also collected 59 tackles this season.Mississippi State also presents an imposing defensive line, a particular concern for Wildcat running back Venric Mark.They have guys on the inside who are 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, 340 pounds and realistically, (if) we run option sideline-to-sideline theyre going to get tired, Mark said. When you play a team like that, with that type of caliber of players, its all about scheme...You have to know what your strengths and your weaknesses are.Theres a lot for Fitzgerald to consider as he locks down a game plan for the Wildcats fifth bowl game in five seasons.(Bulldog coach) Dan (Mullen) does a terrific job schematically, Fitzgerald said. Theyve got great balance. When you look at them offensively, theres not a lot of things that are going to tip what theyre doing and how theyre doing it.(Assistant coach) Chris Wilson does a great job with their defense, theyre big up front -- on both sides of the ball. Theyre very athletic and theyve got the Thorpe Award winner, the best DB in the country in the secondary.Northwestern has already seen some of the what Mississippi State may offer.Theyve got a lot of similarities to Iowa and Michigan State from the standpoint of the downhill run and play-action pass, Fitzgerald said. Theyre very physical and very well- coached and play with terrific effort.Its going to be a fun challenge.Banks was the Bulldogs only first team all-SEC player, but freshman linebacker Benardrick McKinney also snared league honors as an all-SEC freshman. He played in all 12 games and finished 7th in the SEC with 97 tackles.Northwestern had three representatives on ESPN.coms Big Ten All-Freshman Team, including cornerback Nick VanHoose and defensive end Dean Lowry. True freshman Dan Vitale landed on the offensive team.Last week, the College Sports Information Directors of America awarded Capital One Academic All-American honors to Wildcat offensive lineman Patrick Ward (first team) and defensive lineman Brian Arnfelt (second team). Northwestern now has 34 Academic All-Americans in program history.But with two exceptions, top conference football awards eluded the Wildcats.Fitzgerald said he considered running back Venric Mark, who rushed for 1,315 yards and 11 touchdowns, the Big Tens best. But Mark could only garner second team conference recognition.I did miss a game -- Michigan State -- which is probably the best defense in the Big Ten, Mark said. I was a little bit down, a little upset, but at the end of the day (if Fitzgerald) thinks Im the best runner thats all that really matters to me.The only other Wildcat honoree was kicker Jeff Budzein, who shared first-team selection with Nebraskas Brett Maher.
Northwestern will pick up the practice pace later this week. The month of preparation is invaluable, not only to get veterans back up to speed but also allowing younger players additional practice time.The rich get richer, Fitzgerald said. Its one of those situations where youve got a huge opportunity to get those guys a lot of work, (teach) fundamental technique on what you do and how you do it and then figure out what theyve got to do better in the winter.Missing from bowl preparations this year is the stuffed monkey that accompanied the Wildcats to the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston.Northwestern lost to Texas A&M, 33-22, and that symbol of getting a long bowl losing streak off their backs probably wont make the Gator Bowl trip.Besides, the Wildcats dont need any outside influences.I think a year ago that was fun, Fitzgerald said. At the end of the day, were a totally different team ... Our seniors are highly motivated and they want to find a way to win a (bowl) game.Thats a sentiment wholeheartedly embraced by quarterback Kain Colter.Guys are fueled to make some new goals that we havent achieved here at Northwestern, he said. We want to be the team thats remembered as getting that first bowl win in a long time.

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After getting another signature win at Maryland, does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

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USA TODAY

After getting another signature win at Maryland, does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

Does any Big Ten team have two better conference wins than Minnesota?

The Golden Gophers went on the road and defeated a ranked group of Maryland Terrapins on Wednesday night, and they did so in impressive fashion, scoring an 89-75 victory in College Park.

Team this win with the win at Purdue back on New Year's Day, and there's no better pair of league victories to be found.

More importantly though, the Gophers, at 9-6, are now the No. 4 team in the Big Ten standings.

It's all a part of a quality NCAA tournament resume for the Gophers, who are closer to lock status after Wednesday's win than they are to being on any sort of bubble. With mediocrity running rampant through the Big Ten this season, Richard Pitino's 21-win squad should be well on its way to an appearance in next month's Madness, which would be the program's first since he took over as head coach.

The resume looks pretty strong at this point, especially after Wednesday. Minnesota can now claim wins over Purdue, Maryland and Northwestern — all three of those conference victories coming on the road. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Gophers beat Arkansas, the Razorbacks seemingly heading to the tournament themselves. The only loss from the non-conference portion came on the road at Florida State, one of the highest-ranked teams in the country.

So it's safe to say Minnesota will go dancing.

Wednesday's 14-point beatdown of the Terps saw the Gophers shoot 50 percent from the field on the night and 54.5 percent from the field in the second half. Five players scored in double figures: Dupree McBrayer with 18, Nate Mason with 17, Akeem Springs with 16, Jordan Murphy with 15 and Amir Coffey with 13. Minnesota didn't win the rebounding battle but scored 15 points off 10 Maryland turnovers and marched to the free-throw line, going 17-for-20 from the charity stripe while Maryland was just 8-for-13 there.

The second half was a rout, the Gophers outscoring the Terps 55-40 over the final 20 minutes and rattling off two separate 9-0 runs to burst away from the No. 24 team in the country.

The overtime win at Purdue on the first day of 2017 might go down as a bigger win considering the Boilermakers are closing in on the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. That win, too, came by an impressive-enough margin, 91-82. But Minnesota dominated Maryland over the final nine minutes or so and turned in a double-digit victory on the road against a team that lost to that same Purdue team on that same court by just a point two and a half weeks ago.

The Gophers are now on a six-game winning streak and are piling up wins in a fashion that's making them look like one of the Big Ten's finest. A 3-1 start to conference play that extended its overall record to 15-2 was dampened by Minnesota's five-game losing streak that featured losses to higher-echelon teams like Michigan State, Wisconsin and Maryland, plus road losses at Penn State and Ohio State. But since have come six straight wins. While the caliber of opponent hadn't been terribly impressive until Wednesday, the Gophers can now boast nine conference wins. Only three teams have more.

It's now worth watching how high Minnesota can climb in the Big Ten standings before the conference tournament just two weeks from now. If the season ended today, the Gophers would already be in possession of one of those highly coveted two-day byes. But Minnesota is just a game back of Maryland and just two games back of Wisconsin, who the Gophers play in the regular-season finale.

Like Pitino told his team after Wednesday's win: "No more talk about (just making) the NCAA tournament. We're talking about seeds in the NCAA tournament."