The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Next in the series are the Minnesota Golden Gophers, an experienced, well-coached cohort with a possible Big Ten West title in their sights.
Returning Production: 80 percent overall (Offense 75 percent, Defense 84 percent)
2020 Record: 3-4
Coach: PJ 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.
2020 S&P+ Overall: 24th
2020 S&P+ Offense: 14th
2020 S&P+ Defense: 50th
After posting an impressive 11-2 record in 2019 in PJ Fleck’s third season in Minneapolis, the Golden Gophers were expecting more of the same last year. Although Minnesota had lost leading rusher Rodney Smith, leading receiver Tyler Johnson, and their defensive talisman Antoine Winfield Jr., they still started the 2020 campaign ranked No. 21 in the AP Poll and had aspirations to appear in the Big Ten Championship. However, Fleck’s men didn’t quite have the season they were hoping for.
Immediately faced with the challenge of toppling Michigan in the opening week of the season, Minnesota struggled to stop the Wolverines’ rushing attack and lost 49-24. Things got even worse for the Gophers from there, as they traveled to College Park and lost to Maryland 45-44, which included a 17-point fourth quarter comeback by the Terrapins.
Minnesota got back on track with a win at Illinois, but were soon humbled by Iowa 35-7, with their only touchdown coming with seconds left in the fourth quarter. Then, despite being outgained by almost 100 yards, the Gophers grabbed a 34-31 win at home against Purdue to bring their record up to 2-3.
A two-week layoff after the Purdue win due to COVID issues prevented the Minnesota from facing the ‘Cats last season, but the Gophers, with only 35 healthy players, traveled to Lincoln and somehow managed to come back home with a 24-17 victory over the Cornhuskers. The fight and determination shown in that game continued into a 20-17 overtime loss against rivals Wisconsin in the final game of the season, putting Minnesota at a respectable 3-4 for the season.
The Gophers would not be bowl eligible for the second time in PJ Fleck’s tenure, and had two players selected in 2021 NFL Draft, including WR Rashod Bateman being taken in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens.
Minnesota finished 71st in both yards and points per game last year despite losing two of their biggest contributors, and with the offense having considerably more experience entering this season and a year under offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, there could be a considerable jump in those national stats for the Gophers.
At quarterback, senior Tanner Morgan will start, and he will be aiming to replicate his nationally recognized 2019 numbers as opposed to his middling 2020 numbers. Behind him, junior Zack Annexstad is a serviceable backup, and will be able to step in if needed.
Mohammed Ibrahim, a senior, leads a very good running backs group, and while he may not account for almost 60% of the team’s touchdowns this year, he will still be relied on heavily as the premier back. Sophomores Cam Wiley and Treyson Potts will also get playing time, with junior Bryce Williams trying to work his way into the rotation.
For the second season in a row, the Gophers have lost their leading receiver. With Bateman’s departure, senior Chris Autman-Bell figures to be Morgan’s number one target out wide. The rest of the receiving corps is yet to figure itself out, with a number of guys vying for snaps, but sophomore Daniel Jackson could be one to separate himself from the rest of the pack.
In the trenches, Minnesota is loaded with experience and size, and it’s likely that a few of the starters will be playing on Sunday’s come this time in 2022. Overall, the Gophers look to have all the ingredients needed to have a top offense in the country, and they will be a handful for whoever they face.
Much like the offense last year, the Minnesota defense was painfully average, finishing 70th and 71st in points and yards per game, respectively. Additionally, they only averaged one takeaway per game, down a bit from 1.5 takeaways per game in 2019. The defense returns most of its production, so improvement is expected from this unit.
Along the defensive line, DeAngelo Carter headlines the tackles, with graduate transfers Nyles Pinckney and Val Martin looking to make an impact alongside Micah Dew-Treadway. Senior Boye Mafe is the Gophers’ best pass rusher, and fellow seniors Esezi Otomewo and Thomas Rush (a fitting name) will also attempt to put opposing quarterbacks under pressure from the edge.
In the linebacking corps, there’s a pretty clear starting three, with returning leading tackler Mariano Sori-Marin headlining this group. Junior Braelen Oliver and graduate transfer Jack Gibbens will start alongside him, with sophomores Cody Lindenberg, Donald Willis and DJ Gordon IV serving as depth options.
With Benjamin St-Juste having been taken in the NFL Draft, the rest of the secondary will have to take a step forward to make up for his loss. True freshman Justin Walley will likely be one of the starting corners, with senior Coney Durr looking like the probable starter on the other side of the field. At safety, Jordan Howden has one spot locked up, with Tyler Nubin, Calvin Swenson and Michael Dixon competing for the second starting job.
Three Players to Know
QB Tanner Morgan
Morgan was stellar in 2019, throwing for over 3000 yards and 30 TDs with only seven INTs, but he took a step back last year, with his completion percentage dropping as well as TD to INT ratio plummeting from over four to just 1.4. In a much more normal year, and with a year under his belt with a new offensive coordinator, the senior QB is going to look much more like his 2019 self, and will be a massive problem for any opposing secondary.
RB Mohammed Ibrahim
With all of Tanner Morgan’s struggles last season, Ibrahim was pretty much the entire Golden Gopher offense. He had 201 rushes for 1076 yards and 15 TDs, and considering the rest of the offense had 11 TDs combined, that’s even more impressive than normal. Ibrahim will be running behind an extremely talented offensive line, and with a better passing game opening up the rushing game, it’s possible that he could be pushing for 2000 yards and All-American honors.
DE Boye Mafe
One of the few bright spots on a poor Minnesota defense last year, Mafe is one of the best defensive ends in the conference, and will be a nightmare for whoever is unlucky enough to have to block him. In just six games last year, Mafe, a senior, recorded 27 tackles, 5.5 of which were tackles for loss, as well as 4.5 sacks. There’s a chance he could hit double digits in the sack column in a full year, especially if he can become more consistent.