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Three matchups to watch against Minnesota

Prepare for a battle in the trenches.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

After Northwestern (1-8, 1-5 B1G) managed to play No. 2 Ohio State closely in a 21-7 game, the Wildcats have to move on to this week’s opponent, Minnesota (6-3, 3-3 B1G). UMN finds itself in the middle of a Big Ten West race that features four teams with 3-3 conference records, and the Golden Gophers are part of that group. Northwestern may be playing with house money, but Minnesota will be ready to play a tough game. Here are the matchups to look out for on Saturday.

Northwestern’s run defense vs. Mohamed Ibrahim:

Northwestern currently ranks 112th out of 131 teams in FBS in rushing defense. If the ‘Cats are going to pull off an upset on the road on Saturday, the run defense will need to step up in a big way. Northwestern’s run defense is already vulnerable, but to make matters worse, Minnesota’s run offense, spearheaded by redshirt senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim, is prolific. Running behind a veteran-laden offensive line, Ibrahim has established himself as one of the better running backs in the country. Minnesota averages 218.1 rushing yards per game, which is currently 16th in FBS.

Ibrahim has tallied 202 carries for 1083 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns while playing in eight of Minnesota’s nine games this season (he missed the Golden Gophers’ loss to Purdue with an ankle injury). Ibrahim is eighth in the country for rushing yards and third in the nation for rushing touchdowns. Consistency is the key to Ibrahim’s success. In every game he has played in this season, he has surpassed 100 rushing yards and scored at least one rushing touchdown. He also has five contests this year with multiple rushing touchdowns.

Minnesota will absolutely try to control time of possession by attacking Northwestern on the ground. When the Golden Gophers fail to reach 35 minutes of time of possession, they have a 1-3 record. The one win in those four games where Minnesota failed to dominate time of possession was a 20-13 win over Nebraska, when the Gophers had a time of possession of 34:41. Northwestern’s defense has to home in on stopping the rushing attack of Minnesota and limiting the time of possession if the Wildcats have any chance this Saturday.

Adetomiwa Adebawore vs. Minnesota’s interior offensive line

Minnesota’s interior offensive line is extremely experienced. LG Axel Ruschmeyer and C John Michael Schmitz are both redshirt seniors, and RG Chuck Filiaga is a graduate transfer from Michigan. All three starters on the interior offensive line have been in college since 2017. Schmitz was voted to the 2021 All-Big Ten Second Team by the coaches and to the 2021 All-Big Ten Third Team by the media. Filiaga and Ruschmeyer do not have the same accolades as Schmitz but have played in 81 games combined.

Adebawore has been a dynamic pass rusher all season long, but no matter where he lines up on Saturday, he will be dealing with an experienced opponent. He has tallied 29 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles so far. Adebawore’s impact on both Minnesota’s rushing attack and passing game in a tough matchup will go a long way towards deciding the outcome of this affair.

Northwestern vs. third down

Minnesota has allowed opponents to convert on just 25.5% of third down attempts this season. That stellar mark gives the Golden Gophers the second-best third-down defense in the country, trailing only Marshall. On offense, the Golden Gophers have converted 56.6% of third down attempts this season. That conversion rate is the best mark in the country.

So, what about Northwestern? Do the ‘Cats have what it takes defensively to stop Minnesota on third down, and what it takes offensively to convert against an extremely stingy defense? If NU plays to its averages, the Wildcats do not really stand much of a chance. Northwestern has converted 38.5% of third down attempts this season (80th out of 131 FBS teams), while allowing a conversion rate of 42.2% (104th out of 131 FBS teams).

However, in the three games since Brendan Sullivan took over as the starting quarterback, Northwestern has converted 25-of-51 attempts on third down (49.0%). That rate would be good enough for 16th in FBS, so Northwestern does have hope offensively. Ohio State is allowing a conversion rate of 29.2% (ninth out of 131 FBS teams), and yet Northwestern was able to put up nine conversions on 20 third down attempts. It is definitely possible for Northwestern’s offense to play up to the same level that it did against Ohio State, and if the visitors can do that, especially on third down, an upset in Minneapolis is not out of the question.