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Why Northwestern will/won’t beat Minnesota

After a blowout loss at Duke, the ‘Cats look to get back on track at Ryan Field against the Gophers.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern seeks to return to the win column at home this weekend against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The ‘Cats take the field under the lights at 6:30 p.m. CT in front of a full student section for the first time this season.

The Duke game was a difficult return from the high of winning a football game for the first time in over a year against UTEP. But it was predictable, and Northwestern has to push past it. The truth is, this current roster doesn’t have the horses to compete with a top-25 team in the nation, and that’s ok. It does, however, have enough talent to challenge the Gophers. Here are three reasons why Northwestern will get back to an even record, and three reasons why it won’t.

Why Northwestern will beat Minnesota

Athan Kaliakmanis

The sophomore from Antioch, Illinois has struggled mightily to start the season. He’s already thrown three picks to just one touchdown pass and has seven interceptions to four touchdowns in his career at Minnesota. Kaliakmanis was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, and he’s also 6-foot-4, so some of the intangibles are there. But he hasn’t been able to put it together at the college level just yet.

The ‘Cats are banking on that continuing this weekend in Evanston. After facing Riley Leonard and a high-flying Duke offense last weekend, the ‘Cats’ defensive unit could use a bit of a break, and they should get that taking on Kaliakmanis and the Gophers. With just 446 yards through the air this season, Minnesota actually has fewer total receiving yards than Northwestern and sits in 12th in the Big Ten. There are other aspects of this offense that could give Northwestern’s laboring defense trouble, but the quarterback shouldn’t.

Cam Johnson

Early returns look good from Johnson, the Arizona State transfer who made his way to Evanston for his sixth season. He’s not a star wideout, but he’s proving to be a serviceable, consistent one. That’s about all ‘Cats fans can ask for in a year like this one. Johnson has caught 12 passes in three games this season for a total of 141 yards on 11.8 yards per reception. He’s yet to score, but outside of the UTEP game, Northwestern only has three total touchdowns.

In Week One against Rutgers, things got off to a bumpy start between Johnson and fellow transfer Ben Bryant when the two failed to connect on a couple of plays where Johnson had beat his man. But it looks like the chemistry is starting to take shape between the two. Johnson feels primed for a true breakout performance one of these weeks, and a matchup against a middling secondary in the Big Ten might be one of his best opportunities to do so this year.

The atmosphere and situation

I think the fact that this is a night game at home works in Northwestern’s favor. The pressure will be on, but that’s a good thing. This team has proven time and time again that it doesn’t respond well to being massive underdogs in games. In the past couple years, the ‘Cats pretty much always fold quickly against teams they know are better than they are. But this is not one of those situations, and NU will come out under the lights hungry for a win.

The atmosphere at Ryan Field should also be very different than it was for the home opener against UTEP. All the students are back now, and should be making their presence felt as the 12th man. Vegas’s 11.5-point spread must not be taking the quarter system into account.

Additionally, the ‘Cats have No. 7 Penn State coming to town next week, and while I’m sure they’d tell you they’re only focus is on Minnesota, they’re definitely aware of what’s looming. It makes the need for a win all that more pressing. Hopefully Northwestern can channel that in the right way.

Why Northwestern won’t beat Minnesota

Ben Bryant

Bryant makes the list again after another brutal game. It’s hard to view him as anything other than a liability at this point. He’s a liability I’m not yet ready to give up on, but a liability nonetheless.

Bryant was 17-for-34 last weekend for 123 yards and one touchdown pass. He looked good for one touchdown drive in the first quarter, but then was never the same quarterback the rest of the way. So far this season, his QBR is 25.2 which is tied for 122nd in college football. Yeesh.

There’s still time for Bryant to turn this season around, but with the lack of talent around him, this start seems like a very bad sign. There was always a chance that his play at Cincinnati wouldn’t translate to the Big Ten and to Northwestern. Every week he continues to play this way makes that seem more and more likely. I’m not confident in him heading into this week because he hasn’t given me anything to grasp onto yet.

Minnesota running game

The Gophers had to replace Mohamed Ibrahim, who went undrafted this spring. Ibrahim was a workhorse last year, leading the team with 1,665 rushing yards in his senior season. So far, Minnesota has adjusted just fine. The Gophers are sixth in the conference in rush yards per game with 173.7, and freshman Darius Taylor has been really good.

Taylor has racked up 334 yards and two scores on the ground. He’s not much of a receiving threat, but the ‘Cats are more vulnerable on the ground anyway. The Wildcats struggled to tackle on most plays last week, and bringing down Taylor is going to be a difficult task.

Northwestern’s run defense is the second-worst in the Big Ten behind Illinois, which is having a historically bad season stopping the run. The ‘Cats don’t win in the trenches often, and when rushers get into space, there’s nobody who has been consistent at bringing opposing backs to the ground.

The missed tackles

One thing that most really bad teams have in common is that they have tackling issues on defense. This is becoming a really glaring issue for the ‘Cats as this season wears on, and it was really rough against Duke.

Senior leader and middle linebacker Bryce Gallagher leads the team in tackles, but has not looked particularly great captaining the defense. His biggest issue so far? Missed tackles. It’s been prevalent throughout Northwestern’s entire defense, and it’s not an issue it can afford to have against the Gophers.

Hopefully there’s been an emphasis in practice on finishing tackles, because while there’s a lot of things you’d accept from a program in a rebuilding phase like Northwestern, this is not one of them. Northwestern has to make tackles to win this game. Plain and simple.