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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Minnesota

Let Sully play!

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Nebraska Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no such thing as a good loss, but there is such a thing as an entertaining one. That’s what Northwestern (shockingly) gave us on Saturday. The ‘Cats hung with Ohio State for four quarters, a feat that many would have considered impossible going into the matchup. Admittedly, the weather played a role, and C.J. Stroud looked uncharacteristically bad, but I think it’s okay to take that game as a moral victory.

Now, Fitz and the ‘Cats turn their attention to the Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-3, 3-3 B1G), who they will play this Saturday at 2:30 PM CST in Minneapolis. Here are three reasons why the ‘Cats will finally get their second win of the season, and three reasons why they won’t:

Why Northwestern will beat Minnesota:

The Gophers simply are not Ohio State

Against the Buckeyes last Saturday, Northwestern led in time of possession by 13 minutes, and was more efficient on third down. NU also outgained Ohio State through the air and in total yards. Those statistics are hard to believe and incredibly encouraging. Northwestern arguably outplayed the second ranked team in the nation. If the ‘Cats can harness it, they should have some momentum heading into a winnable matchup this Saturday against the Golden Gophers. Sure, a 6-3 bowl-eligible Big Ten team is no slouch, but the Gophers are no Ohio State.

Minnesota averages 15 fewer points per game than the Buckeyes. It is worth noting that the Gophers’ three losses (Purdue, Illinois and Penn State) came against pretty good Big Ten teams. But, again, Northwestern just played with Ohio State. Minnesota is inarguably part of a lower tier of teams.

Improved secondary play

Northwestern’s defensive backs came up with huge plays on every drive last week. The coverage in the Ohio State game compared to past weeks was like night and day. Somehow, the ‘Cats were just way better. It felt all afternoon like nobody was open for Stroud, and the future first-round pick looked frustrated and uncomfortable.

The ‘Cats held the Buckeyes to just 21 points, and all of the credit goes to Cam Mitchell, A.J. Hampton and the defensive backfield. There wasn’t a consistent pass rush at all, but even with all the time in the world, Stroud struggled to find places to throw the football. The question is, can Northwestern do it again? If the secondary can match its performance against Ohio State, then the ‘Cats will win on Saturday. Stroud and the Buckeyes overcame the unit’s near-perfect performance, but Minnesota doesn’t have the same horses.

Brendan Sullivan (so long as he’s allowed to play)

“They’re in the wildcat again?!?!?!” “Oh my god it’s third and long. Where the heck is Sullivan? WHY ARE THEY RUNNING?” These were the main sentiments in the Northwestern student section last week. In the coaching staff’s defense, the wind was really whipping at Ryan Field. But, there’s no excuse for subbing Brendan Sullivan out of the game as much as the Wildcats did.

The sophomore is the most exciting player on the roster right now. He represents the future, one that seems (slightly) brighter. And, he played a good game when he was in there, wowing fans with his legs and his ability to maneuver outside the pocket.

Assuming the conditions are better in Minneapolis, and assuming the injury he suffered in the fourth quarter doesn’t press Ryan Hilinski back into service, Sullivan must see more of the field. As a young, inexperienced starter, Sullivan can always be the reason Northwestern loses games. But, if the ‘Cats finally capture this illusive second win against the Gophers, Sully will be a massive part of the effort.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Minnesota:

Bad play-calling

Third-and-long, apparently, is now a running down. The Northwestern coaching staff certainly seems to think so, at least. Play-calling is what lost the Ohio State game. Early on, trickery and the repetitive Wildcat gameplan was working. However, by the second half, it had grown stale and ineffective. No adjustments were made. Between the misuse of Sullivan and a bizarre refusal to throw the ball even in obvious passing situations, Northwestern gave itself no chance.

Against Minnesota, play-calling cannot cost the ‘Cats again. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian must orchestrate a better game if Northwestern wants to actually pull off the upset this time. The good news is, there most likely won’t be extreme conditions to think about and factor into the game plan. Hopefully that simplifies things for Fitz and Co., but if the offense looks like the same offense we saw last Saturday, it will take an absolutely Herculean (Hulkian?) effort from Evan Hull to bring home a W.

The Minnesota defense

Minnesota gives up the third-fewest points per game (14.2) in the Big Ten. In the past two weeks, the Gophers shut out Rutgers and then surrendered only 13 points against Nebraska. Northwestern, on the other hand, has the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten. These numbers make Saturday look pretty bleak.

The Northwestern offense has simply shown no ability to excel against the better defenses in the conference. In the Iowa game two weeks ago, it failed to get anything going drive after drive and lost 33-13. Then, against Ohio State, it could only muster one touchdown. There are reasons to believe the unit is capable of a higher scoring output, but it hasn’t been putting points on the board at all. It seems very likely that the Minnesota defense will give the ‘Cats fits.

Mohamed Ibrahim

The Gophers’ senior running back is their most explosive offensive weapon by a good margin. The Baltimore native is playing his fifth season in Minneapolis, and it’s been a good one. He’s second in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,083 yards already. He’s also scored 15 touchdowns. At 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, Ibrahim isn’t some huge freakshow of a running back. He’s also virtually invisible in the passing game. Unfortunately, though, Northwestern has given up the most rushing yards in the conference, and that is where Ibrahim is at his best.

Ibrahim is also coming off a 128-yard, two-touchdown performance against Nebraska. His confidence is high, and he’s surely licking his chops watching NU try to stop the run on game film. It will be critical to find a way to control Ibrahim if the Wildcats want a shot in this one. Otherwise, the Gophers will be able to control the ball and dictate the game behind their star runner.