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Northwestern-Minnesota preview: Opponent Q&A with Gopher Illustrated

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Ryan Burns gives us the skinny on Minnesota football

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The newly-ranked Wildcats head to Minneapolis, where they haven’t won since 2012, on Saturday. We talked to Ryan Burns of Gopher Illustrated to get the low-down on the Golden Gophers.

InsideNU: Minnesota fired its defensive coordinator before the Purdue game and it seemed to make a huge difference. What did you notice about the Golden Gopher defense on Saturday?

Ryan Burns: They played as fast as we’ve seen in Big Ten play. Minnesota’s got talent in their linebacking crew with Blake Cashman, Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin, but they’d been playing slow and missing assignments under former defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Robb Smith. Joe Rossi came in and assumed both LB/DC responsibilities last Sunday night, and seemingly simplified things for this linebacker crew, which lead to Minnesota’s defense holding Purdue to negative rushing yards and three points through three quarters last Saturday.

Rossi has done some simple changes schematically, and the Gopher defenders executed it brilliantly last week.

INU: What’s the scouting report on freshman QB Tanner Morgan?

RB: He’s very decisive, confident and the more mobile of Minnesota’s two quarterbacks. The stat lines didn’t look great last week, but the Gopher pass-catchers dropped five or so balls that make things look the way they did. Morgan has no issues staying in the pocket, but Minnesota’s also used him in the speed and read option game. Morgan doesn’t make many bad decisions with his arm, which is why he’s only got three interceptions on nearly 100 passing attempts.

INU: Who are the top defensive players for Minnesota, and what can they do on the field?

RB: The top defenders for Minnesota come from Eden Prairie High School in the Twin Cities here, in edge Carter Coughlin and linebacker Blake Cashman. Coughlin leads Minnesota with nine sacks, including six in Big Ten play. He’s not the biggest guy you’ll see at 6-foot-4 225 pounds, but he’s as quick-twitch as this Northwestern team as faced. Cashman leads the team in tackles with 80+ and tackles for loss with 12.5. The senior linebacker is extremely explosive and if he gets a window to get downhill, he’ll take it.

INU: It’s been an uneven season for Minnesota, but the Golden Gophers have been playing well of late, especially offensively. What’s been going right, and who are some playmakers NU fans should know of?

RB: Minnesota’s offense under Kirk Ciarrocca has been clicking in the last six games or so. The Gopher offense has scored 28+ points in five of their last six games, and in their three Big Ten home games, they’ve averaging over 35 points a game. It doesn’t surprise me that this offense really comes alive at home as Minnesota starts eight underclassmen and seven freshmen. It’s a group that’s naturally going to play better at home as they’re more comfortable there, but they’ve really been finishing drives with touchdowns and not field goals of late.

Tyler Johnson leads the Big Ten in receiving yards per game at just under 100, and he’s been sensational at creating separation and making playing in the intermediate part of the passing game. The Gophers field-stretcher is true freshman Rashod Bateman who is eighth in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game. This Gopher passing offense has weapons like I haven’t seen in the eight yards I’ve been covering the team, as after those two, Minnesota has formidable weapons elsewhere on the outside.

INU: With Minnesota one game away from bowl eligibility, what’s the pulse of the fan base? How important is this game to P.J. Fleck and the program?

RB: Minnesota winning one of their next two games is extremely important. To get to a bowl game with as many injuries as the Gophers have had, and what they’ve been playing on offense for underclassmen would show progress. This is a fan base that truly doesn’t know what to expect on any given week as look at the last two weeks for example. They got blown off the face of the earth by a bad Illinois team, and then came home and led Purdue by 38 points in the fourth quarter.

Beating Northwestern at home this weekend, or a very average Wisconsin team next Saturday need to be the goal for PJ Fleck.

INU: Who comes out on top on Saturday, and why?

RB: I wish I could answer this at about 10:30 a.m. CST on Saturday to see who actually suits up for Northwestern, but the matchup to watch if Minnesota’s going to win is their pass-catchers versus an injury riddled secondary without Montre Hartage.

Northwestern has won an incredible amount of close Big Ten games, but this Gopher offense has been a completely different team at home, and I do wonder if Fitzgerald rests some players to get ready for Indianapolis.

I’ll say the Gophers pull out a close one, 24-23.