MINNEAPOLIS | The old adage suggests Northwestern won't be successful with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian sharing time at the sport's most important position: "If you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one."
Whether their plan can lead to a prominent bowl game or not, there's no doubt that the Wildcats have a lot to offer on offense.
"They do it probably more effectively than some of the other people have done it, because I don't think it's easy to figure out," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said.
Colter can run with the Big Ten's best; the junior ranks ninth in the conference with an average of 65.8 yards rushing per game. He's a good enough athlete, too, that the Wildcats will move him to wide receiver so the sophomore Siemian, who is more of a pure passer, can sling the ball around the field.
"When they have great athletes out there at multiple positions you just have to know where everybody is," Gophers safety Brock Vereen said.
After overwhelming Indiana in winning their Big Ten opener with 704 total yards, the Wildcats were tamed last week by Penn State in a 39-28 loss. Colter's running lanes were filled, and Siemian averaged only 3.75 yards per pass attempt. The defense gave up 22 points to the Nittany Lions over the last 10 minutes of the game and the fast-paced, multi-faceted attack stalled down the stretch when it mattered most.
So the Gophers (4-1, 0-1), who are also coming off their first loss of the season, at least have a blueprint for beating the Wildcats (5-1, 1-1) today at TCF Bank Stadium, the centerpiece of homecoming weekend.
Northwestern was Minnesota's homecoming opponent in six of the last 18 seasons, and the Wildcats beat the Gophers and spoiled the party in five of those games. Minnesota's only win in that span was in 2002. Overall, Northwestern has won five of the last seven road games against the Gophers.
After being overpowered at the line in a 31-13 defeat by Iowa, allowing 182 yards rushing, the Gophers are eager to play the type of spread-out, no-huddle team they handled well in the nonconference part of their schedule. New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse all brought similar offenses, though none of them do this as well as Northwestern, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten with an average of 430 total yards per game.
"They had 21 points a year ago before we even blinked," Kill said, referring to last season's 28-13 loss on the road. "They're going to go."
The Gophers have their own quarterback-switching strategy.
Senior MarQueis Gray returned to practice this week after suffering knee and ankle sprains on his left leg at the end of a run on Sept. 15 against Western Michigan. Max Shortell, who like Siemian is the traditional pocket passer of the pair, is expected to start again in Gray's place despite throwing three interceptions at Iowa. The Gophers listed Gray as the backup on their depth chart. But the powerful, elusive Gray, albeit not at full strength, will probably get his share of snaps.
Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald joked this week about Kill's coy answer to the question of how or if he'll use Gray -- "I wish I had a crystal ball," Kill said -- by referencing the pop tune "Call Me Maybe."
The Gophers, as a team, didn't appear ready to play two weeks ago against the rival Hawkeyes. This, then, will be a litmus test of their turnaround in Kill's second year, having already surpassed their victory total in each of the last two seasons.
Lose at home to a usually middle-of-the-pack squad, and 2012 will suddenly look a lot like the same old Gophers. Beat a team that was a few minutes away from having the only undefeated overall record in the Legends Division, and perhaps that impressive win over Syracuse on Sept. 22 was a harbinger for a return to credibility in the conference.
The Wildcats, too, are out to show they can capably bounce back.
"If I were to tell you in August, 'We're going to be in control of our destiny to win the Big Ten championship,' would you be happy?" Fitzgerald said. "That's what I said to the team. So that's where we sit right now. Unfortunately, we let one slip away."
Said senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, a native of Stillwater, Minn., and one of the four team captains: "I think guys are more than ever hungry to get back at it, get back working. The ball didn't bounce our way this last week, but there's a lot of things we need to work on, a lot of things we can get better at."
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