With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland just over two weeks away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.
Returning Production: 70% (offense 80%, defense 59%)
2021 Record: 9-4 (6-3 B1G)
Coach: P.J. 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.
2021 SP+ Overall: 18th
2021 SP+ Offense: 55th
2021 SP+ Defense: 12th
Upon looking at Minnesota’s schedule results from last season, one might scratch their head and wonder. It wasn’t a typical year by any means for the Golden Gophers, but it was one that ended with P.J. Fleck’s squad in second place in the west and a bowl win despite a couple of uncharacteristic losses and a big win or two.
Right out of the gauntlet, the Gophers took on Ohio State in week one. Though the end result didn’t go in their favor, Minnesota actually pulled ahead before halftime after holding the Buckeyes to just three points in the second quarter. Tanner Morgan and co. came out of the loss and dealt a 30-0 thumping to Colorado before hitting their first bump in the road.
That bump was non-conference opponent Bowling Green, who took advantage of two late interceptions by Morgan to pull out a gritty 14-10 win, dropping the Gophers to 2-2 before the heat of conference play. Not discouraged, Minnesota bounced back and routed four big ten opponents in a row — including the Wildcats — before facing a pivotal stretch of losses that would eventually diminish the Gophers’ chances of winning the West.
First came the Illini, who held Minnesota scoreless through three quarters. By then, it was too little too late, and Illinois pulled out a 14-6 upset despite the Gopher defense holding quarterback Brandon Peters to just 80 passing yards. Then came Iowa, the eventual kings of the west, who took down Minnesota.
By then, despite wins at Indiana and against border-rival Wisconsin in the fight for Paul Bunyan’s ax, it was a trip to the Guaranteed Rate Bowl and not Indianapolis that ended the Gophers’ season. Nonetheless, a solid win against West Virginia in the bowl game ushered hope and optimism toward Minnesota’s 2022 campaign where fans are hoping it might just be their year.
Bet you’re surprised we’re still mentioning Morgan’s name — we are too. The super-senior is suiting up in 2022 for his sixth and final season with the Gophers, and he enters and the winningest quarterback in recorded school history. Despite his evident experience, Minnesota ended up 8th in the conference in passing efficiency and yards per game. There’s hope that Fleck re-hiring offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca from his successful 2019 season can mend the passing game, but both Morgan and leading receiver Chris Autman-Bell will have to produce at a higher level.
Returning to the backfield, however, is star running back Mo Ibrahim who suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in last year’s season opener. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2020’s shortened season to lead the Big Ten and will return with a vengeance. The passing game will need to improve significantly, but having Ibrahim back is a major boost for this offense and a major threat to opposing defenses.
Minnesota’s strength lay in its defense which finished at the top of the Big Ten behind only Wisconsin last season. Its rushing defense kept backs to just 3.4 yards per play and the secondary allowed the second-fewest passing yards per game among conference opponents at 181.2.
However, Minnesota only returns 60% of its defensive starters, including its leading tackler Jack Gibbens, corner Coney Durr and six defensive linemen. There’s hope that additions through the transfer portal in the secondary and new linemen Lorenza Surgers from Vanderbilt and Darnell Jefferies from Clemson can put the Gophers back on their perch. It was the defense that kept Morgan and the offense in their close games, but there is only so much a good defense can do without a high-firing scoring game to back it up.
Three Players to Know
RB Mo Ibrahim
Ibrahim is seriously a force to be reckoned with. Before his injury in the 2021 opener against Ohio State, he ran for 163 yards on 30 carries and only played three quarters. This shows how much Fleck was planning on using him to make up for the evident lack of pass offense — in 2020, he only rushed the ball 200 times total and was close closing in on a quarter of that before exiting last year in week one. If he returns at full strength, Ibrahim will be the catalyst of this Gopher offense.
WR Chris Autman-Bell
The Gophers need a real leader in the receiving core and Autman-Bell has a chance to step up. Sure, there's not much he can do if Fleck doesn’t trust Morgan to throw the ball, but Autman-Bell has been at Minnesota for six years as well and hasn’t earned more than Big Ten Honorable mention (an accomplishment nonetheless). This is the last chance for the passing relationship between Morgan and himself to strengthen and break through before both of them depart.
C Justin Walley
A true freshman in 2021, Walley played in all 13 games last season and eventually earned the starting spot in the latter half. He was an impact player, especially in Big Ten play where he recorded five tackles and an interception against Graham Mertz and Wisconsin in arguably his best performance of the year. Walley is young and has the potential to become a top corner in the conference if not the country.