By Eric Rynston-Lobel
This matchup will be the penultimate regular season game for the Wildcats in 2019 and given how challenging the start to their season is, this game in all likelihood will hold massive implications.
Whether it be for an opportunity to clinch the Big Ten West or to guarantee a spot in a bowl game, this is a game most Northwestern fans probably have circled on their calendars as a “must win” in the sense that if the program wants to take that next step following last year, they need to beat the Golden Gophers at home in late November.
Here’s how the teams match up:
Northwestern Defense vs. Minnesota Offense:
Heading into his second year as the Gophers’ quarterback, Tanner Morgan will hope to improve upon last year which saw him throw nine touchdowns and six interceptions in nine games. After a spectacular performance against Indiana in which he threw for 302 yards and three touchdowns while completing 70.8% of his passes, Morgan struggled down the stretch throwing for fewer than 200 yards in all but one of Minnesota’s final five games.
To help Morgan along will be his fellow second-year teammate Mohamed Ibrahim who amassed 1,160 rushing yards (second most for a freshman in school history) on 202 carries. Ibrahim rushed for 100 yards or more in five games last season. Against the ‘Cats last year, Ibrahim fell two yards shy of the century mark on 20 carries.
The final target to watch on Minnesota’s offense is senior wide receiver Tyler Johnson. Like Ibrahim, it was rare to look at a Minnesota football box score in 2018 and not see a number greater than 100 under the yards column. In fact, Johnson eclipsed 100 receiving yards in six games and ended the year with 1,169 overall to go along with 12 touchdowns. Against NU, he totaled 88 yards on 8 catches including a touchdown.
Looking at Ibrahim and Johnson, this game will certainly be a great test to evaluate just how well-rounded the ‘Cats defense is in 2019. Last year, the secondary struggled, but this year, Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald says this secondary is deeper than previous years. With Joe Gaziano, Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher leading the front seven against the run, it appears on paper that they will be able to contain Ibrahim.
Johnson, though, will be a more uncertain matchup for the ‘Cats. Ultimately, how he performs will likely come down to how Morgan grows in his second year under center as well as how Johnson’s fellow wide receivers develop.
Northwestern Offense vs. Minnesota Defense:
With the program’s two leading tacklers from 2018 Blake Cashman and Jacob Huff gone, the Gophers will need to find new playmakers on defense.
Carter Coughlin, who led the defense with 9.5 sacks, will be back as will several defensive backs including Jordan Howden, Terell Smith, Antonio Shenault, Coney Durr and Chris Williamson. The fact that there are five DBs entering the season who were productive last year, speaking to the depth this team has in the secondary. That should help Minnesota make up for a more inexperienced defensive line.
At the linebacker position, look for Thomas Barber to lead the way. He returns in 2019 after recording 47 tackles last season.
Although we still don’t know for sure who will be starting at QB for the ‘Cats in this one, I’ll assume at this point Hunter Johnson will have full control of the offense. A younger defensive line could help the redshirt sophomore and the offensive line and give him more time in the pocket.
This should also help Isaiah Bowser who last season turned in a strong performance in Minnesota, as he ran for 88 yards on 29 carries in the Wildcats’ 24-14 victory.
Northwestern 20, Minnesota 16
The Northwestern-Minnesota clash in 2018 was a somewhat meaningless game for the ‘Cats in the sense that they had already clinched the Big Ten West. This year, though, I expect this game will be more significant. As discussed in the other week’s previews, Northwestern has a very difficult start to the schedule – if they start of 4-3, that’d be impressive. Following that seven-game stretch in which they play six games against preseason top-25 teams, the ‘Cats might need to run the table. They should be able to take care of a Golden Gophers team that’s solid, but definitely not as strong as some of the other teams in the West namely Purdue, Wisconsin and Nebraska. But of course in typical Wildcats’ fashion, they might get the win, but it won’t look pretty in the process.