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Three matchups to watch in Northwestern vs Minnesota

P.J Fleck’s all about matchups.

Northwestern v Minnesota Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

After a 24-point loss to Duke in Durham, Northwestern Football fell to 1-2 on the season. Now, the focus for David Braun’s team shifts to Minnesota; the Gophers are coming off of a loss to Duke’s rival, North Carolina, and heading to Evanston looking for a win.

Over the past three years, the Wildcats have had no success against Minnesota, losing all three games by a combined score of 110-39, and every year, the games have gotten less competitive. Northwestern lost 31-3 in Minneapolis last year and 41-14 in Evanston the year before, with the Gophers having a ton of success on the ground.

Both teams are hoping for a win, and there will be many key matchups across the field. Here are a few to look out for:

A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson vs Tyler Nubin

Henning and Johnson have been Northwestern’s two playmakers in the passing game, and this week, they face a Minnesota secondary led by Tyler Nubin. Nubin, a fifth-year senior, is viewed by many as a potential first-round draft pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. He leads a Minnesota defense that is letting up an average of 199.67 passing yards a game so far.

Minnesota’s defense is its stronghold, and Nubin is a reason why. If Northwestern wants any success in the air, it’s going to come through Henning and Johnson. Last week, North Carolina slot receiver Nate McCollum destroyed the Minnesota secondary, having 15 receptions for 165 yards. The hope is Henning in the slot can also put up big numbers. If not him, Johnson needs to. Whoever is matched up with Nubin will have a long day.

Athan Kaliakmanis vs the Northwestern secondary

The Gophers’ largest defect so far has been their passing game, led by Athan Kaliakmanis, who so far is averaging nearly 149 yards per game. This is because Kaliakmanis, a first-year starter, has not been up to par. But, at the same time, Northwestern saw Kaliakmanis last year in Minneapolis, and while he did not play well, the ‘Cats lost 31-3.

But, the difference here is Minnesota has no Mo Ibrahim, who rushed for over 200 yards last season. This might put more pressure on Kaliakmanis and his arm. The Northwestern secondary needs to keep Kaliakmanis from having a good game if it wants to win.

Moreover, Kaliakmanis has thrown an interception in all three of his games. Northwestern needs to force turnovers come Saturday; they forced two in their win against UTEP, and against a quarterback who has made his mistakes, the message is clear.

Whether Garnett Hollis, Devin Turner, Theran Johnson, Rod Heard II or someone else, they need to make a play. Whether it’s to set up the offense with a short field against a good defense or to keep the lead, turnovers will be key in this game.

The run game

It doesn’t matter that Ibrahim isn’t around — Minnesota’s run game is still its strong point on offense. While the Gophers are only averaging 173.7 yards per game, it's much better than their passing numbers. Last week, the Northwestern defense struggled against the run; Riley Leonard, Jaquez Moore and Jordan Waters all found success for Duke.

The main back will be Darius Taylor, who is averaging over 111 yards per game, and Northwestern needs to keep him in check. This will be the premise of the game: if Northwestern is able to stop the run, they’ll force Kaliakmanis to pass. If not, the Gophers will do what they did last year to the Wildcats, where Kaliakmanis passed for less than 100 yards but Minnesota still won by 28.

Can Northwestern flip the script? It starts in the trenches. It always has been against Minnesota. It needs to happen in Evanston on Saturday.