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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Minnesota

After a reprieve due to COVID-19 concerns, these two Big Ten West rivals are ready to square off on a spooky Saturday.

Minnesota v Northwestern Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

After yet another crushing defeat last Saturday – this time, at the hands of the No. 6 Michigan Wolverines – Northwestern returns home to Ryan Field to encounter the cauldron-hot Minnesota Golden Gophers on Halloween’s Eve. Will the Wildcats bolster their 3-1 home mark and return to .500, or will Ryan Hilinski continue seeing those pesky ghosts? Below are several reasons why Northwestern will or won’t triumph over its next Big Ten West foe.

Why Northwestern will beat Minnesota

Few Worrisome Offensive Stars

Although the Gophers sit at 5-2 and are tied with Iowa atop the Big Ten West, P.J. Fleck’s squad hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboard this year.

Since superstar running back Mohamed Ibrahim was sidelined with a lower leg injury, Minnesota has scored just 25.83 points per game. While that figure is still bounds ahead of Northwestern’s subpar 19.7 points per contest, the Wildcats likely won’t have to grow anguished about one player gashing them in particular.

After a great 2019 campaign, Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan’s play has declined considerably in the last two years, as he’s posted a combined 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions in the last 14 games. Additionally, since the departure of Rashod Bateman, the Golden Gophers haven’t had many outstanding receiving options. Chris Autman-Bell leads the team with just 266 receiving yards.

All season, Northwestern has had a mightily difficult time containing electric players. Dynamos like Kenneth Walker III, Mataeo Durant, Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins have ravaged Jim O’Neil’s defense. Minnesota doesn’t boast skill position players of that caliber, though, which is a promising sight for this Wildcat defense.

Big-Time Receivers Tricking the Gophers

The elephant in the room regarding this game is the health of Stephon Robinson Jr., NU’s top-flight receiver who left last week’s contest in Ann Arbor with a lower leg injury. If Robinson can’t suit up against Minnesota, Northwestern’s offense will yet again be down its two top options in Robinson and Bryce Kirtz, leaving Malik Washington with WR1 duties.

However, if Robinson is healthy enough to play, he could very well reach the century mark yet again.

Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s unit has not performed admirably against opponents’ premier wideouts. Ohio State’s Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson combined for 197 yards and three touchdowns in early September in Minneapolis, and Purdue’s David Bell accumulated 120 yards on six catches against UMN. Robinson has cemented himself in the same echelon as the three receivers mentioned above, so if he’s good to go, he should have a field day and catalyze Northwestern’s offense.

Home Cooking

I mentioned it in the introduction, but Northwestern has simply fared much better in Evanston this year.

Granted, the ‘Cats have only played two Power 5 squads in Ryan Field, earning a 1-1 record. At home, though, Northwestern has a tremendous +44 point differential. Contrast that with NU’s -82 point differential on the road, and it’s clear that Pat Fitzgerald’s team has been lifted by the home crowd.

With yet another packed student section, possibly chock full of students in costumes, no less , Northwestern is poised to proliferate its home magic.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Minnesota

A Stifling Gopher Defense

A tenet throughout the Big Ten, particularly the Big Ten West, has been decent offensive play being elevated by stellar defense. Much of that is the case with Minnesota.

Thus far, the Golden Gophers are only surrendering 19.6 points per game – coincidentally, almost the exact same rate at which Northwestern scores in each contest. In fact, Rossi’s defense hasn’t given up more than 23 points in all of the last five games, an impressive mark considering that Minnesota has encountered offensive forces in Purdue and Nebraska.

Although UMN doesn’t necessarily have a bona fide star on defense, Boye Mafe has been dominant in 2021. The redshirt senior defensive lineman has posted five sacks and seven tackles for loss in seven contests. Mafe doesn’t flash a myriad of pass rush moves, but his bull rush could prove challenging for Ethan Wiederkehr and Charlie Schmidt along the right side of Northwestern’s offensive line.

A Varied, Powerful Rushing Attack

Yes, the Gophers are sans Mohamed Ibrahim. In fact, their leading rusher and Ibrahim’s backup, Trey Potts, is also out for the year. But that doesn’t mean that Fleck’s contingent can’t pick up tracts of yardage on the ground.

Since it was announced that Potts would not play again in 2021 on October 11, the Gophers have continued to pound the ball. Against Nebraska, Minnesota ran it to the tune of 182 rushing yards, and facing Maryland the team racked up an astounding 326 yards on the ground.

UMN has taken a running back-by-committee approach down Ibrahim and Potts, but numerous faces have performed well. Bryce Williams, Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving each eclipsed 100 rushing yards in one of the Golden Gophers’ last two games, and Cole Kramer has also tacked on two touchdowns.

No, Minnesota’s run attack isn’t as much of a Jekyll-and-Hyde as Michigan’s with Corum and Haskins, but O’Neil’s defense will have to force Morgan to pass by taking away the ground game, which is a daunting task to say the least.

Road Rampage

Northwestern has played its best football at home this season, and Minnesota is arguably the antithesis.

Away from Huntington Stadium, the Gophers are an unblemished 2-0. Yes, two games is a small sample size, but Fleck’s team hasn’t been fazed by tough atmospheres – or even drastically different weather conditions, as his squad posted a 30-0 win at Colorado.

Moreover, the last two Minnesota-Northwestern matchups have witnessed the visitor snatch all of the candy. It should be acknowledged that this Minnesota team is quite distinct compared to the last version that played in Evanston. Even then, Morgan and Fleck have proven that they can take down Pat Fitzgerald in his own house.