Minnesota lost a heartbreaker to Iowa last week to end any hope of an undefeated season, but they still have plenty to play for. The Gophers (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) can certainly still smell roses, and their road to Pasadena (and maybe even the College Football Playoff) starts in Evanston. Here are three matchups they’ll have to win to beat the ‘Cats:
Joe Gaziano vs Minnesota offensive line
One of NU’s all-time great linemen is close to cementing his legendary status. Gaziano came into Saturday’s game against UMass with 27.5 career sacks, 0.5 behind Casey Dailey for the program lead. After missing 3 or 4 sacks against a weak UMass o-line, and with Northwestern missing out on postseason play, Gaz only has two more games to get it done.
Minnesota presents an interesting opportunity. The Gophers are 80th in the country in sacks allowed, giving up 23 through 10 weeks (for reference, NU has only given up 20.) If NU can stay on average against the Minnesota line and get at least 2 sacks, you have to think that the ever-motivated Gaziano will have a great chance to make history.
Minnesota QB vs NU secondary
Northwestern’s secondary looked questionable at best against UMass, and worse than that against Purdue. Greg Newsome II remains a huge loss, but at some point, the Wildcats have to make some clear strides in that area. Northwestern had numerous blown coverages by Trae Williams and co that were masked by the missed throws by Randall West and Andrew Brito.
Additionally, UMass marched down the field in their first possession and threw a touchdown that was called back on an offensive penalty. Regardless, NU’s cornerback play has been a weak point on an otherwise solid defense of late. Going into this week, they will have the challenge of containing either Tanner Morgan, who exited Saturday’s loss to Iowa with a concussion, or freshman Cole Kramer.
It’s hard to make a judgement on Kramer from his two throws, all of which were in a tough spot, but Morgan, if he is able to go, has shown that he is more than competent. His 83.1 QBR is 8th in the country this year, posting an impressive 22 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 10 games. Going up against talented wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, Northwestern is going to have their hands full no matter who is under center for the Gophers.
Northwestern backfield vs Minnesota front seven
It’s hard to predict who will start at running back for Northwestern against Minnesota. Evan Hull had a career day in his third game as a ‘Cat (his first start), as the true freshman ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries. Those are impressive numbers, but it was also against UMass, the worst defense in the country, so the performance may not be completely indicative of Hull’s true talent.
With that said, he can still play another game this year without burning his redshirt. I’d expect to see him against Minnesota this week, as Fitz will likely ride the hot hand. Drake Anderson will also likely play, but his role is TBD. With Bowser out for the season, we might even see Ray Niro III get some carries again if Fitz doesn’t want to burn Hull’s game on Saturday.
No matter who lines up in NU’s backfield, they’ll have their hands full, as Minnesota’s defense has given up only 3.86 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns on the ground in their ten games this season.