Minnesota has been one of the most successful teams in the Big Ten West this season, currently holding a 6-3 record on the back of Mo Ibrahim, who is fifth in the nation in rushing yards per game. Inside NU spoke with The Daily Gopher’s Blake Ruane to discuss the Golden Gophers ahead of Saturday’s kickoff:
Inside NU: Minnesota has had a strong season thus far, but there was a skid in October where the team lost three straight. Was there something that Purdue, Illinois and Penn State did specifically to disrupt the Gophers, or was it just something internally the team was struggling with?
Blake Ruane: Against Purdue, the Gophers were without running Mohamed Ibrahim. For them, that was essentially like trying to drive a car without an engine. As Ibrahim goes, so goes the Minnesota offense. The Gophers simply don’t have another running back on the roster who can match his production. Last year, Minnesota was able to plug-and-play at running back because of their offensive line. They lost four starters from the offensive line coming into this season and that unit has not been nearly as effective this year. Fortunately for the Gophers, Ibrahim is often able to make something out of nothing. But he has been banged up for most of the season, as a result.
Not only has the offensive line failed to consistently open up holes in the running game, but pass protection has been an issue, as well. This is made worse by Minnesota’s lack of talent at wide receiver. Since losing Chris Autman-Bell to a season-ending knee injury in week three, it has been made clear that the Gophers lack a receiver who can take the top off the defense and be a threat in the vertical passing game. Minnesota’s wide receivers have also struggled to create separation at times, which has encouraged defenses to play press man coverage and load the box to stop the run or bring extra pressure.
In summary, inconsistencies at pretty much every position on offense contributed to that three-game skid in October.
INU: Tanner Morgan has taken a couple hard hits recently and is questionable for Saturday. How does that affect Minnesota’s chances to win, and how does it affect the Gopher offensive game plan if he doesn’t play?
BR: It depends on who you ask. If he was healthy, I imagine Tanner Morgan would probably be starting on Saturday, because the coaching staff trusts him. But there are a number of Gopher fans who think redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis should be the starting quarterback moving forward, regardless of whether Morgan is healthy or not.
The knock against Morgan is that the sixth-year senior has hit his ceiling and that that ceiling is not very high. He has been labeled a game manager at quarterback, with questionable arm strength and accuracy at times. Kaliakmanis lacks Morgan’s experience, but his ceiling is much higher. The arm strength is there, and he is very athletic. When he was inserted in the second half against Nebraska, that athleticism became an asset for Minnesota. They moved the pocket and he looked comfortable throwing on the run. Kaliakmanis also kept the ball on a couple zone read plays, forcing the defensive end to respect him as a threat to keep the ball and run. He also made big throws downfield to create explosive plays in the passing game.
I doubt we’ll see Morgan on Saturday considering he reportedly suffered his second concussion in less than a month last week. So with Kaliakmanis at quarterback, the question becomes whether he can avoid making a critical mistake. He had a couple plays against the Huskers where he made the wrong read or tried to force a throw, but it never resulted in catastrophe. Freshmen quarterbacks are bound to make mistakes. Kaliakmanis needs to limit his mistakes in order to give the Gophers a chance.
INU: Minnesota’s defense has been one of the best in the conference, how does Northwestern need to go about attacking it Saturday?
BR: The Achilles’ heel of this defense is that they tend to start slow. They always seem to be on their heels in the first drive of the game before finding their sea legs and settling in. This puts pressure on Minnesota’s offense to keep pace, because they’re designed to get an early lead and then bleed the other team dry. Comebacks are very uncommon with this team. So Northwestern’s best chance at winning this game is to surprise the Gophers out of the gate and build an early lead. I would expect the Wildcats to attack them on the ground first, where the Minnesota defense has sometimes been sloppy and out of position in their run fits.
INU: Mo Ibrahim is clearly the star of the offense. Is there anyone else who Wildcat fans should look out for on that side of the ball, and who stands out among the defense?
BR: I mentioned Kaliakmanis at quarterback, who will certainly be interesting to watch. He can make plays with his arm or his legs. His big target in the passing game is tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, but I would also expect him to try and connect with wide receivers Daniel Jackson and Dylan Wright. Those are two wideouts with so much potential, but they’ve both struggled to consistently produce from one game to the next.
On defense, the secondary is one of the best in the Big Ten. Tyler Nubin at safety will be all over the field. They have a lot of trust in him. I would also keep an eye out for Cody Lindenberg, who has seen more playing time at linebacker in recent weeks. He is the type of linebacker who can play from sideline to sideline and make plays anywhere on the field. I expect he’ll be active in trying to help the Gophers neutralize Evan Hull.
INU: Lastly, what’s your score prediction for Saturday?
BR: I’ve got Minnesota emerging victorious by a score of 24-10. I think Northwestern is probably a bit better than their record, and I would not be surprised if this is a close game for a couple quarters. But I think the Gophers eventually pull away.