Northwestern will welcome P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota program to Evanston on Saturday. The Gophers dropped their first game of the year last Saturday against Iowa, failing to capitalize on four red zone opportunities and lacking execution in big moments. However, Saturday still represents a big contest for Minnesota, who needs to get back on track before facing Wisconsin next week. Here are three things to know about Northwestern’s opponent:
This is one of the best years in Minnesota football history
At risk of being a victim of recency bias, this is shaping up to be a top-three season in Minnesota history. My quick research tells me that this is the Gophers’ best season since 2003, when they went 10-3 and defeated Oregon in the Sun Bowl, and arguably since Minnesota’s 1961 team that won the Rose Bowl.
P.J. Fleck’s team currently sits at 9-1 and beat a (then) top-four Penn State team two weeks ago. It’s an incredible season in and of itself, but considering where the Gophers were last year (7-6), it’s even more remarkable. Minnesota hasn’t gone through the toughest schedule of all time, but it has been a really fun storyline to watch, and there is much left to play for in Minneapolis as they control their destiny to the Big Ten Championship Game.
The Gophers’ playoff hopes were undone last week
Heading into its matchup against Iowa, Minnesota was 9-0 and coming off of a season-defining win against Penn State. Sitting at number eight in the College Football Playoff rankings, the team had a realistic shot at making a case for the committee. Its hopes were dashed, however, when Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa was able to get the victory in Iowa City.
Minnesota will drop down the CFP ranking when it comes out on Tuesday, and at this point even winning out and defeating an unstoppable Ohio State team might not be enough to earn the Gophers a spot in the playoff. A large reason for that is the lack of strength in the early part of Minnesota’s schedule. It faced no ranked teams until the Nittany Lions, with the toughest challenge before PSU being.... Illinois? Yikes. The committee hasn’t been high on Fleck’s squad all year, and the Gophers will have to put together three impressive victories in these final weeks if they want a chance to sneak into the top four.
A lethal wide receiver combination awaits Northwestern
Senior Tyler Johnson and sophomore Rashod Bateman have combined for 103 catches, 1845 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. The duo is one of the most efficient and talented in the country, and they have been able to lead a Minnesota passing attack that averages 259 yards per game behind quarterback Tanner Morgan.
It’ll be incredibly difficult for the Northwestern secondary to handle the two receivers that both have legitimate NFL aspirations. Even in a losing effort, the two amassed 15 catches, 268 yards and a touchdown against Iowa last week. Given how the NU secondary has struggled it recent weeks with cornerback Greg Newsome II out for the year, things could get out of control on Saturday.