The final installment of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
In Northwestern’s penultimate game, they’ll face a Minnesota team that had an up and down year in 2018. It capped off the year with a momentum-building win against Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. The Golden Gophers return with hopes of a Big Ten West run, but what will the team be bringing in to 2019? Let’s take a look:
Returning production: 78 percent, (Offense 90 percent, Defense 66 percent)
2018 record: 7-6 (3-6 B1G)
Coach: P.J. Fleck (12-13, 3rd season)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2018 S&P+ Overall: 45th
2018 S&P+ Offense: 75th
2018 S&P+ Defense: 39th
2019 S&P+ Projection: 33rd
Minnesota got off to a quick 3-0 start on the year, including a win over a then-ranked Fresno State team. However, the Gophers dropped their fourth game to Maryland before proceeding to drop three more games to Iowa, Ohio State and Nebraska. Minnesota gave the Cornhuskers their first win of the season after a 0-6 start.
Fleck’s team found a crucial bounce-back win against Indiana, but it followed that right up with a loss to Illinois. Yes, that Illinois. They got trounced by Lovie Smith’s team 55-31 in Champaign. The bipolar Gophers proceeded to dismantle Purdue at home before falling to the Big Ten West champs.
The end of the year was kind to Minnesota, however. The Gophers blew out Wisconsin to pick up a huge road rivalry win and dominated Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. It wasn’t quite the progress Fleck wanted in his second year, but he’ll take some pride in the team finishing strong and securing Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003.
Minnesota will have an absolutely loaded backfield this year. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks both dealt with injuries last year, and will be returning to form a three-headed monster with Mo Ibrahim, who amassed 1160 yards last year.
The quarterback position is a much bigger question. Zach Annexstad and Tanner Morgan both will be sophomores this year, and neither should provide much inspiration for the Gopher faithful. Morgan appears to be the favorite after Annexstad went down with a foot injury in practice just a few days ago and was ruled out indefinitely.
Freshman Jacob Clark is another option, and Fleck has shown he has no issues giving the ball to a true freshman, but it’s really just not an ideal situation for the team under center.
Tyler Johnson was Minnesota’s best receiver last year, and he’ll be back for his senior season. Johnson has NFL potential written all over him. He’ll be a nightmare to cover and is the team’s biggest hope to salvage the passing game. Rashod Bateman is another great option for Minnesota, hauling in 51 catches for 704 yards. The two represent a duo that will be one of the best in the conference.
Joe Rossi enters as the new defensive coordinator after Minnesota conceded 26.5 points per game and gave up 30 points on six separate occasions last year. Blake Cashman was the team’s leading linebacker but was drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Outside of that, the Huff twins’ departure leaves a hole in the secondary, and both of Minnesota’s interior linemen left.
Despite the losses though, Antoine Winfield Jr. returns to aid the defensive back group, and there is plenty of promise on the defensive side of the ball with Carter Coughlin earning hupr as another possible NFL talent. Terrell Smith will also be an integral part of the secondary. If the sophomore is able to effectively limit receivers, it will be a huge boost to the safeties and the overall defense.
Three Players to Know
WR Tyler Johnson
The aforementioned receiver is a star. In his junior season, Johnson garnered 78 catches for 1169 yards, and was by far the most lethal weapon Minnesota had. He’ll likely carry the load for the receiving core again, and a down year from Johnson would be devastating for Fleck’s team.
LB Carter Coughlin
The Eden Prairie native will step into the role left by Blake Cashman in the middle of the defense. Coughlin had 48 tackles and four forced fumbles (say that three times) last year. He’s the key cog in a Minnesota defense that had a poor year last year, and will be relied upon heavily.
RB Mohamed Ibrahim
The sophomore was a surprise for Minnesota last year. Ibrahim had 202 carries that went for 5.7 yards per carry, an excellent number, and even tallied a 74-yard run. He has the power and speed to be an excellent back for the Gophers again this year, and despite the return of Smith and Brooks, he’ll start the year leading the Gopher rushing attack. If Minnesota can’t find consistency at the quarterback position for a second year in a row, Ibrahim will have to carry even more weight.