It’s finally happening. Northwestern is going to its first Big Ten Championship game after last week’s win over Iowa, Wisconsin’s loss to Penn State and Purdue’s surprising defeat against Minnesota. Now, the Wildcats play the Golden Gophers on the road in a contest that has nearly every characteristic of a trap game. A newly-ranked road favorite (-2.5 now) coming off a huge win playing an inferior opponent seeking bowl eligibility? Yep, that checks out. Here are three key matchups to watch as Northwestern looks to win its 10th consecutive game in the Big Ten West.
Northwestern’s run defense vs. Minnesota’s rushing attack
Minnesota ran all over Purdue last week to the tune of 265 yards — true freshman Mohamed Ibrahim had 155 of them and fellow freshman Bryce Williams added 68. This, of course, plays into the hands of a Northwestern defense that stops the run at or behind the line on 21 percent of carries (35th in FBS in stuff rate) and allows four or more yards only 42 percent of the time, according to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly. Northwestern’s defensive line has not only been stopping the run, but creating opportunities for linebackers Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Nate Hall to do so. The result is the 20th-best Defensive Rushing S&P+ and a fascinating matchup to watch on Saturday.
Northwestern’s young (and depleted) secondary vs. Minnesota receivers
Junior wideout Tyler Johnson (62 catches, 948 yards, nine touchdowns) has a future in the NFL and highly touted true freshman Rashod Bateman (43 catches, 594 yards, six touchdowns) has three games with seven receptions. This is a tough draw for Cam Ruiz, Alonzo Mayo and Roderick Campbell. We don’t know the status of Trae Williams, who sat last weekend after suffering an injury against Notre Dame. We do know Montre Hartage will be out, resting his hamstring for likely the final two weeks of the season. This is a tremendous opportunity for a group of inexperienced defensive backs to get invaluable experience against talented receivers. I’d be remiss if I did not mention Travis Whillock, who led the team in tackles and filled in admirably for starter Jared McGee. I’ll be watching the secondary Saturday.
Mick McCall vs. interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi
I really like this storyline. They didn’t score in the first half against Iowa, but a commitment to the run game paid off in the second to help the Wildcats grind out a division-clinching win. For Minnesota last week, Rossi took the reins of a defense allowing 261.1 passing yards per game, 246.5 rushing yards per game, and 43.1 points per game against Big Ten opponents. Then the Gophers held Purdue to 233 total yards and a season-low 10 points without a single third-down conversion. It will be interesting to see how aggressive McCall is against a team that shut down the run last week.