Minnesota’s quest for an undefeated season is now over, thanks to mistakes made by the Golden Gophers and an impressive performance from Iowa at Kinnick Stadium last weekend.
Now, it is on to the 2-8 Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field, where Minnesota was shut out two years ago on a cold, rainy November Saturday. The 2019 team, though, is a near polar opposite from the 2017 team, with an effective offense and defense to take on the slumping Wildcats.
The Gophers could clinch the Big Ten West title if they get the victory over Northwestern and Wisconsin loses to Purdue. They clinch at least a share of the title with a victory, regardless of the outcome of Wisconsin vs. Purdue. Otherwise, it could come down to the Axe game over Thanksgiving weekend to determine the champion of the Big Ten West.
Before we look ahead to the next border battle, how does Minnesota stack up against Northwestern? See a statistical comparison of the two teams’ offense and defense below.
While Northwestern is coming off a decisive 45-6 nonconference victory over 1-10 Massachusetts last weekend, the Wildcats are winless in the Big Ten in 2019. They have scored 60 points over seven games against Big Ten opponents, compared to Minnesota’s 256 points in seven Big Ten games.
Starting with the rushing game, Northwestern has had a quandary at the position this season. Sophomore Isaiah Bowser emerged last season as the top back but has only played in five games this season. Freshman Evan Hull has been limited as well, which has left redshirt freshman Drake Anderson to play in all 10 games and garner 513 yards to this point, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
Hull, though, had a three-touchdown effort in the team’s last game, so look for him to be relied upon heavily to generate offense for a team that has struggled to put up points against conference opponents.
Through the air, Northwestern has put junior Aidan Smith under center and has been largely ineffective through eight games this season. In those eight games, Smith has a collective three touchdowns coming in two games, and nine interceptions, throwing two picks in a game twice so far.
As for Northwestern’s receivers, they have been similarly less fortunate. Six receivers have 100-plus yards, with junior Riley Lees as the only receiver with more than 174 yards. Lees has 330 yards and one touchdown this season, averaging nearly eight yards per reception.
On the Minnesota side of the offense, the Gophers had been scoring at a torrid pace, scoring at 31 points in every Big Ten game — that is, until they went to Iowa and only scored 19.
To add to the offensive dip for Minnesota, quarterback Tanner Morgan was knocked out of the game to injury near the end when freshman Cole Kramer had to come in for two plays before he threw an interception to seal the loss.
As of Monday, it is uncertain if Morgan will be ready to go for the game against Northwestern, at which point either Kramer or fellow freshman Jacob Clark would come in to lead the offense. If this were the case, expect Minnesota to rely heavily on its three backs, who have all proven capable of putting up big rushing totals on any given week.
The receiving corps is still led by both senior Tyler Johnson and sophomore Rashod Bateman who, no matter the quarterback, have the ability to turn difficult passes into catches with their athletic ability.
Junior Blake Gallagher leads Northwestern’s defense in interceptions and total tackles this season, a force Minnesota is going to need to be watchful for. As well as him, stalwart defensive lineman Joe Gaziano has 12.5 tackles for loss this season along with 6.5 sacks that moved back opposing offenses a combined 43 yards.
Gaziano and company will have things secure as possible up the middle, which will be put to the test with Minnesota’s running game.
Another defensive effort Minnesota will have to be mindful of is on the field goal unit. In last week’s game, Northwestern blocked a field goal try and returned it for a touchdown. Last week, Gophers freshman kicker Brock Walker missed an extra point and a 50-yard field goal try.
Minnesota’s defense, on the other hand, will need to focus on pressing on coverage and making tackles on first contact with the rusher or receiver. Against Iowa, Minnesota let too many plays continue on missed tackles and Hawkeye receivers often had ample space to make catches to move the chains.
With a fully healthy unit, Minnesota should be able to make quick work of the Wildcats’ offense that has struggled against the Big Ten all season.
Though Northwestern is coming off its second victory of the season and Minnesota just suffered its first defeat, Minnesota is the overwhelming favorite coming into the matchup.
Even with the possibility of Morgan being out of the game, Minnesota’s offense is more experience and explosive, while Northwestern’s hasn’t found a way to consistently put up competitive numbers against conference opponents.
Minnesota will look to bounce back and earn a share of the Big Ten West crown while Northwestern’s season has slowly gotten worse and worse as conference play has drawn on.