Let’s try this again! After making it through two opponent previews of the previous schedule before the Big Ten’s postponement announcement, we’re back with the final installment of our 2020 summer/preseason guide. 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.
The Wildcats continue their late season road trip from East Lansing to the Twin Cities where they take on the Gophers in Week 7. Minnesota is coming off of a historic 11-win season where they rowed the boat all the way to a win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. With minimal offseason losses for the offense, Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman are set to have another successful year while Fleck’s inaugural recruiting class faces its first defensive test.
Returning Production: 58 percent (Offense 82 percent, Defense 33 percent)
2019 Record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)
Coach: P.J. Fleck
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.
2019 S&P+ Overall: 13th
2019 S&P+ Offense: 7th
2019 S&P+ Defense: 26th
Minnesota’s 2019 season was nothing short of historic. It’s safe to say expectations were high after a 2018 bowl berth, but few expected the Gophers to go undefeated through their first nine games. After a few close calls against nonconference opponents South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern — all of which Minnesota won by a singular score, — any doubts that had arisen about Fleck’s young squad’s potential were erased early in Big Ten play.
After a satisfying win in Week 4 over Purdue, the Gophers went on a dominant run, outscoring their next three opponents 168-41 before taking on their toughest opponent yet: Penn State. Either the fifth-ranked Nittany Lions came into the matchup a little too confident or Minnesota really was that good, but the Gophers prevailed in an exciting 31-26 win that vaulted them into the top 10. The win, sealed by a Jordan Howden interception, marked the end of their undefeated season as Minnesota fell to Iowa in a disappointing loss the next week.
The Gopher’s regular season ended with a win over Northwestern and a loss in the battle of the Big Ten West versus Wisconsin, which returned Paul Bunyan’s Axe to Madison. Despite missing out on the Big Ten Championship game, Minnesota’s 11-2 record was good enough to place them in the Outback Bowl versus No. 9 Auburn. The Gophers outshone their SEC opponent with Tanner Morgan and Tyler Johnson dominating Auburn’s defense in a massive 31-24 win. The victory propelled Minnesota to its first top-10 finish in nearly 60 years, and Fleck has every intention to rewrite history once again.
The Gopher offense was dominant last year, finishing seventh in the S&P+ rankings thanks to Tanner Morgan and his receiving tandem of Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. Minnesota averaged 35 points for game, 13 more points than the average of their opponents. Morgan had an efficient season at the helm, finishing with a 66% completion percentage and throwing for over 3200 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Morgan’s efficiency in the passing game is due in part to the skill of Johnson and Bateman. With Johnson taking his talents to the NFL, the question of Bateman’s return to the Gopher lineup was a deciding factor in many fans’ hopes for 2020. However, since the star receiver has decided to opt back in to the delayed Big Ten season, the Gophers’ pass offense looks promising once again. The junior came extremely close to matching Johnson’s stellar 2019 season with for 1219 yards and 11 touchdowns. Should Bateman continue to shine in Fleck’s offense, the Gophers will remain a receiving threat in the Big Ten West.
Minnesota’s rushing game did not disappoint last year either — now Carolina Panthers running back Rodney Smith ran for 1163 yards and eight touchdowns. With the loss of Smith in the running game and a key target in Johnson in the passing game, junior Mo Ibrahim will have to pick up the slack this season. Ibrahim, while overshadowed by Smith in the backfield, managed to run for a solid 600 yards and seven touchdowns. Protected by 6-foot-9, 400 pound Daniel Faalele and the rest of Minnesota’s solid offensive line, most of which is returning, Ibrahim is set up for a successful season as a starter.
While Tanner Morgan’s offense seemed to captivate the attention last season, the Gophers were solid on the defensive side of the ball as well. They allowed an average of 306.6 yards per game, placing them tenth in the country in total defense. However, upon the loss of star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. along with six other defensive starters, the upcoming season will be a true test for the juniors — Fleck’s first recruiting class.
Half of this year’s new projected starters are products from the coach’s first year, all of which have had minimal playing time so far. The Gophers’ secondary faces a test as well, initiating sophomore Tyler Nubin to fill Winfield’s spot. Nubin, while coming in with minimal experience as a starter, is joined by seasoned junior Jordan Howden who spent his last two years beside Winfield. Howden had an incredibly productive season in 2019, racking up 57 tackles, 40 of which were solo. Nubin will benefit from Howden’s experience in the secondary and hopefully can carry at least some of Winfield’s weight in his absence.
The Gopher’s defensive line, while relatively young, should continue to play well under the leadership of seniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Keonte Schad. Dew-Treadway and Schad will lead a D-line chock full of juniors from Fleck’s inaugural class, most of which have not yet started many games. In the lineup is redshirt junior Esezi Otomewo, who will have to prove why he received the Gophers Outstanding Defensive Freshman award in 2018. Fleck’s defense has serious potential, but they will have to prove themselves early on in the season.
Three Players to Know
Rashod Bateman, WR
Bateman’s decision to opt out of the 2020 season in August was a disappointing blow to Gopher fans. However, since the Big Ten’s decision to return on October 24, Bateman has resolved to take the field for what may be his last season in the maroon and gold. The potential NFL first rounder is poised for an impressive season as Tanner Morgan’s top target — he has the ability to surpass his 1200-yard, double-digit touchdown season last year. Seeing as Bateman pulled in more receiving yards alone than the entire Northwestern offense in their previous matchup, his return could cause problems when both teams meet again in December as well.
Tanner Morgan, QB
Morgan may have been one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the nation last season. His 180.4 quarterback rating was second only to Heisman finalist Justin Fields, and he threw for an outstanding 28 touchdowns and 2975 yards. Before the Big Ten’s initial cancellation, some had Morgan pegged as a potential Heisman finalist for 2020. With pretty much the entirety of Fleck’s previous offensive line returning, Morgan will have the protection once again to have a stellar year.
Jordan Howden, DB
Howden has big shoes to fill in the absence of now Tampa Bay Buccaneer Winfield Jr. Though overlooked last season, Winfield would not have been able to carry the secondary without Howden’s contributions. The junior earned the respect of Gopher fans by sealing their historic win against Penn State with his interception on the Nittany Lions last drive of the game. Keep an eye on Howden to step up this season as a leader for Minnesota’s pass defense.