Last week in Ann Arbor, Northwestern gave both its fans and the college football viewing public as a whole false hope for 30 minutes of game time before returning to its regularly scheduled slaughtering at the hands of the Wolverines. Now the ‘Cats return home to Evanston to take on a Minnesota team that enters the game 5-2 and on a three-game win streak. Fantastic.
To help us preview Saturday’s action, we got help from Blake Ruane of SB Nation’s The Daily Gopher, covering all things Minnesota. Make sure to follow Blake on Twitter to learn more about Northwestern’s upcoming foes.
Inside NU: Everyone wrote this Minnesota team off after losing Mohammed Ibrahim to injury and dropping a game to Bowling Green. How have they rallied since then to make it to 5-2 and in contention for the West title?
Blake Ruane: Honestly, it’s remarkable how Minnesota has been able to overcome losing two starting running backs in the span of five games, especially when one of them was the reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year. With Ibrahim and Trey Potts both out for the season, they’ve turned to a committee of running backs: redshirt junior Bryce Williams, redshirt freshman Ky Thomas and true freshman Mar’Keise Irving. Those are literally the only healthy scholarship running backs on the roster at the moment, so they’ve been asked to either sink or swim and all three have now rushed for 100+ yards in a game this season. Each one also ran for a touchdown in the win over Maryland, so the Gophers have fully embraced the committee approach. It also helps that Minnesota has a veteran offensive line that is finally starting to play to their potential after laying an egg against Bowling Green.
Obviously that Bowling Green loss is the elephant in the room. It looks more bizarre with each passing week, as Minnesota continues to win and Bowling Green continues to lose. P.J. Fleck hasn’t pulled any punches when talking about that game, describing his own coaching that day as “awful.” To his credit, though, he has managed to keep this team from dwelling on that loss. They’ve put it in the rearview mirror and focused on getting better every week. It sounds like a self-scout conducted during their week six bye was instrumental in helping diagnose the issues on the offensive side of the ball that cost them the game against Bowling Green.
INU: Everyone talks about this gigantic, experienced offensive line for the Gophers, have they lived up to the hype so far this year with their performance?
Ruane: As I alluded to in my first answer, the offensive line has been inconsistent. This has been something of a recurring theme throughout Fleck’s tenure. The offensive line always seems to struggle to start the season before figuring things out. With all five starters from last season returning, most fans assumed — or hoped — there would be fewer growing pains in the early goings this year. Alas, that was not the case, but they’ve looked much improved since their bye week, posting strong performances against Nebraska and Maryland. They definitely are much better at run blocking than pass protection, so when Minnesota is able to get the ground game rolling, they are more than happy to let quarterback Tanner Morgan just hand the ball off.
INU: It’s been a while since these two teams last played, how is Northwestern viewed by the Minnesota fanbase at large, both in this season and as a football program at large?
Ruane: Is there a more Jekyll and Hyde program in the Big Ten than Northwestern? They won the West in 2018, then returned to the division cellar in 2019, won the West again in 2020 and now seem to be back in the cellar in 2021. I know they were a senior-laden team last year, but the wild swings in quality from year-to-year gives me whiplash. Personally, I have a great respect for Pat Fitzgerald and the program he has built in Northwestern. Fleck has never been shy about his admiration for Fitzgerald, who agreed to a lunch with Fleck years ago when Fleck was only an assistant coach at Northern Illinois and wanted to pick his brain. The lack of animosity between them probably softens me on Fitzgerald, even though Northwestern has won three of their last five contests and obliterated Minnesota as recently as 2015 and 2017.
As far as how Minnesota fans view Northwestern, I would imagine it’s not that different from how Northwestern fans view Minnesota. Each fan base probably looks at the schedule each year and circles their game against Minnesota or Northwestern as a win. That’s probably not entirely fair to Northwestern, since they have two division titles, which is two more than Minnesota has. But I don’t expect either fan base to give an inch when comparing the two. As far as this season is concerned, I think most Gopher fans decided this is not a very good Northwestern team after the 56-7 loss to Nebraska.
INU: What’s the formula to beating this Minnesota team besides being a football team from Ohio?
Ruane: First and foremost, you have to be able to stop the run. Minnesota can pass the ball, but they’d rather avoid it if possible because that aspect of their offense just hasn’t been very consistent this season. They are most comfortable when they can run the ball down their opponent’s throat with impunity. If you can put the brakes on their ground game and get them behind the sticks on early downs, that is your best chance at beating them.
Defensively, the Gophers are stout against the run, but their secondary has been vulnerable to chunk plays through the air. They don’t surrender a lot of explosive plays, but if you can pile up first downs through the air and move the ball down field, you’re going to have a better chance of putting up points than if you try to grind out drives on the ground.
INU: Score prediction and your reasoning?
Ruane: On paper, I like this matchup for Minnesota. The Gophers have had great success running the ball and the Wildcats have not had much success stopping the run. Minnesota’s defense is most vulnerable in the secondary but Northwestern has struggled in the passing game and could be without their top wide receiver, Stephon Robinson Jr., on Saturday after already losing Bryce Kirtz to injury. I’m never comfortable with picking the Gophers to win any game comfortably, but that’s where I land on my prediction. Minnesota 30, Northwestern 13.