Opponent Preview: Minnesota
By Gavin Dorsey
The Wildcats will enter the eighth week of the season at home, facing their fourth straight Big Ten opponent: Minnesota. The Golden Gophers head into the year following a very disappointing 2020 season, where they finished with just a 3-4 record. Northwestern is only a season removed from an AP Poll No. 10 ranking and 11-2 record; meanwhile, Minnesota looks to turn the page on last year and return to its 2019 form.
The Golden Gophers struggled with COVID-19 issues within the program last season, leading to canceled games against both Wisconsin and Northwestern. The team will certainly benefit from a full, uninterrupted season, and both teams will likely be near the top of the Big Ten West by the time of this late October matchup.
Keys to the Game
1. Slowing down Mohamed Ibrahim
The Minnesota running back surprised many last spring with his decision to return to Minneapolis for his redshirt senior year, and now he’ll look to once again ravage the Big Ten. In just seven games last season, Ibrahim ran wild for 1076 yards and 15 touchdowns, good for an average of over 153 yards per game. The Wildcats won’t be able to fully stop the conference’s top running back, but they must somewhat contain him if they want to win the game. Ibrahim accounted for over 41% of the Gophers’ offense in 2020. So if the ‘Cats can somewhat slow down the shifty back, they have a good chance at coming home with a win.
2. Relying heavily on the ground game
Incidentally, Northwestern’s biggest offensive key to the game is the same as Minnesota’s. Nearly all of Northwestern’s wins last year shared the common theme of controlling the running game. Meanwhile, the Gophers had the third-worst rushing defense in the conference last season. Especially considering how much better the Wildcat offense operated during Cam Porter’s breakout three weeks, Northwestern should look to dominate the rushing battle to win this matchup. Porter’s unfortunate season-ending injury certainly throws a wrench in the team’s game plan. However, come Oct. 30, the Wildcats should have hopefully figured out an effective running back-by-committee approach featuring Evan Hull and Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair, among others.
3. Skoronski vs. Mafe
A major factor in the success of Northwestern’s offense against Minnesota will be the ability to block star edge rusher Boye Mafe. The 2020 Honorable Mention for All-Big Ten honors was an absolute force for the Golden Gophers last year, racking up 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and 27 tackles in only six games. No matter who he was lined up against, Mafe created havoc in the running and passing game for both teams, so limiting his pressures will be crucial for the Northwestern offensive line. Peter Skoronski seems like the obvious favorite as of right now to take on the challenge. The D-Lineman is an exceptional pass rusher from both sides of the line, so the Wildcats will need to make an active effort to double him if he instead goes to the right side.
Prediction: Northwestern 23, Minnesota 20