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Northwestern-Minnesota Preview: Opponent Q&A with Ryan Burns of Gopher Illustrated

We go behind enemy lines to get the scoop on PJ Fleck and his veritable army of boat-rowers.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday at Ryan Field, the Wildcats (2-8, 0-7 B1G) will try to beat the Gophers (9-1, 6-1) for the third straight year. To say that it will be an uphill battle is an understatement. Anyways, to learn as much as possible about what has made this Minnesota team tick this year, we talked to Ryan Burns of, who gave us as much insight as we could have asked for (and a few deserved digs at Northwestern’s expense).

INU: Minnesota is obviously having a fantastic season, extending PJ Fleck after the phenomenal 9-0 start. Has the fan reaction/mood been tempered by a tough loss to rival Iowa, or is everybody still all in and rowing the boat?

RB: The boat is rowing with significant force. There are certainly some fans who are a bit downtrodden with the perfect season coming to an end, but Minnesota still has everything in front of them with Wisconsin at home next weekend for the Axe, Big Ten West and potentially College GameDay as well.

We’re also talking about the Gophers in the top ten of the College Football Playoff Rankings in late November.

INU: Offensively, the Gophers have stuck to the run game on an overwhelming majority of plays this season, though they obviously broke that trend when playing catch-up against the Hawkeyes. How impressive have Rodney Smith and the offensive line been, and is the offense striking the right balance?

RB: Iowa taking the lead off of their first possession was the first time that the Gophers had trailed in over a month, so when you’re playing in such positive game-script situations, you’re going to run the football. Especially when you win your four October games by a total of 127 points.

Rodney Smith has been the main engine to the Gophers three-headed running attack with Mo Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks, and Smith is now second in Gopher history in rushing yards. He’s been most effective in outside zone for the Gophers this season, but he’s a true do-it-all back. The offensive line passed their test at home against Penn State, but then struggled against AJ Epenesa and Iowa last week. The Minnesota Moving Company has come a long way since the non-conference, and they’ll be getting back their starting right guard in Curtis Dunlap this weekend.

The passing game for Minnesota has been the most efficient of any Big Ten team so far this season, and it’s a combination of things. The number one thing opposing defenses do first against the Gophers is try to stop the run, which puts wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman on islands on the outside, and the Gophers have been winning those matchups every week. Kirk Ciarrocca has done a great job with this offense, and it’s certainly been a delicate balance.

INU: Tanner Morgan’s status for Saturday still appears up in the air. Do you have any update on that situation, and how much of a downgrade would it really be to lose him for the game while keeping Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman on the field?

RB: The latest update is Morgan is still in the concussion protocol, and we likely won’t know his game-time status until an hour before the game on Saturday.

It’d certainly hurt to go from Tanner Morgan to a true freshman who hasn’t started a game in their career. I’d have trust that Ciarrocca would adapt the offense to what they could do, but like you mention, Minnesota still has Bateman/Johnson/Autman-Bell/Smith/Brooks/Ibrahim and a fully healthy offensive line. If they could just be a game-manager, that should be enough to get a win against Northwestern.

INU: The defense seems to have had its fair share of ups and downs over the past few weeks, looking solid thanks to some crucial forced turnovers against Penn State before righting the ship after a disastrous start against Iowa. What is your confidence level for that side of the ball at, and who should Wildcat fans watch on that side of the ball?

RB: Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi wants his defense to do two main things: stop the run and limit big plays. And for the most part in Big Ten play, the Gophers have been able to do that. Minnesota is fifth in Big Ten play against the run, third against the pass and the most efficient pass defense.

The Gophers are back at full-strength on defense with Kamal Martin back at linebacker, and he’s arguably been the most impactful player for the defense, and that’s saying something considering the season that safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is having. Benjamin St-Juste and Coney Durr have been great on the outside at corner, and Sam Renner and Carter Coughlin have been disruptive on the defensive line.

For how different Northwestern’s offense is compared to Iowa and Penn State, I feel good about the Gophers’ chances of making Aidan Smith beat them with his arm, which is what every Minnesota fan should want.

INU: Are there any newcomers or just generally unheralded players, that non-Minnesota fans maybe don’t know, who are playing crucial roles right now?

RB: On offense, I’d point to wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell. His stat line doesn’t look overly impressive with 23/340/5, but all he does is make huge catches to extend drives and earn YAC to score touchdowns. On defense, watch #90 Sam Renner. The former walk-on has been very disruptive as a three-technique defensive tackle this year, and he’s been a big reason for the Gophers’ success on defense.

INU: Finally, Northwestern has had plenty of success against Minnesota in the past two years. Will that matter at all? What is your official game prediction?

Previous years success doesn’t really impact things to me, especially considering the diseased season that Northwestern has had. I still believe that Fitzgerald and staff are great coaches, but the injury luck that the Wildcats have had this season is absolutely dreadful.

Ultimately, I can’t see Northwestern’s offense scoring more than 17 points on the day unless the Gopher special teams units give it to them. Minnesota’s offense has too many good players to be held off the scoreboard for too long, while Northwestern’s offense doesn’t have enough bullets in the chamber.

PJ Fleck and Minnesota grab their tenth regular season win for the first time since 1905.

Minnesota 27, Northwestern 13