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RoWINg to Northwestern - Opponent Preview

I’m not entirely sure how this team won the Big Ten West

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The newly-crowned Big Ten West champions are coming to town on Saturday. So what can the Minnesota Golden Gophers expect from the Northwestern Wildcats?

Are they any good this year?

Record: 6-4 (6-1, 1st B1G West)
S&P+ Overall Ranking: 77th

Somehow, Northwestern will represent the West in the Big Ten Championship. Yet, S&P+ has the Wildcats ranked 77th in the country. I’d say it’s open to interpretation.

Aside from an inexplicable loss to Akron, none of their four losses are all that bad, especially when two of them were to College Football Playoff contenders Michigan and Notre Dame. So how did a team that went 0-3 in their nonconference schedule win the West? Simply by taking care of business against mediocre Big Ten competition. Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Iowa were all ranked when they played Northwestern, but all three have since dropped out of the Top 25. Outside of that trifecta, all the Wildcats had to do was survive close calls against Purdue, Nebraska, and Rutgers — all games decided by four points or less.

So how did Northwestern win the West? By simply surviving.

SB Nation’s Bill Connelly does his best to explain the inexplicable here.

Can they score on offense?

I don’t know if I’d describe the Wildcats’ offense as “good.” More like “good enough?”

Northwestern does not put a lot of the points on the board, averaging 23.6 points per game. But their defense — more on that later — has worked to keep the scores low.

Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson, in his fourth year as the Wildcats’ starting signal caller, has not been playing like a four-year starter of late. In their last four games, his completion percentage has hovered around 50 percent and he has thrown more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (3). Thorson often has good pocket awareness and can extend plays with his legs, but his decision-making has not been sound. Similar to Purdue’s David Blough, he seems to play better when he can get a rhythm early. Minnesota can’t let Thorson get comfortable.

His top two targets in the passing game are senior wide receiver Flynn Nagel and junior wide receiver Bennett Skowronek. Nagel leads the team in receptions (63) and receiving yards (744), but scored both of his touchdowns from this season in one game. Skowronek has had an up-and-down season but will be immortalized in Northwestern lore after a diving, full-extension, game-winning touchdown catch against Iowa, helping the Wildcats clinch the Big Ten West.

The breakout star on offense has been freshman running back Isaiah Bowser. Northwesern struggled to gain traction in the running game early on this season, for a multitude of reasons: Sophomore Jeremy Larkin retired from football due to medical seasons after only three games, junior John Moten IV otherwise struggled in the starting role until suffering a leg injury against Nebraska, and Bowser collected all of two carries over the first six games.

Bowser has since rushed for 483 yards on 112 carries with four touchdowns, all over the span of four games. He has done so behind an improving offensive line that features four upperclassmen in the starting five, including three seniors.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

This is not a great defense, but they’ve played well enough up to this point to keep the Wildcats’ relatively low-scoring offense in almost every game this season. It isn’t even a particularly opportunistic defense, tied for 70th in the country with 14 turnovers forced.

The Wildcats are solid against the run, allowing an average of 135.3 rushing yards per game. But they are inconsistent, bottling up Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor one game (11 carries for 46 yards) and then stumbling over themselves trying to tackle Nebraska’s Devine Ozigbo in another (22 carries for 159 yards and two touchdowns). The Gophers’ offensive line was able to impose their will upon the Purdue defensive front in the second half last Saturday — opening up more than 200 yards of combined running room for freshman running backs Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams — and will need to do the same against Northwestern.

In the secondary, Northwestern will be without three of their four starters: senior cornerback Montre Hartage (hamstring), junior cornerback Trae Williams (ankle), and senior safety Jared McGee (undisclosed). Minnesota wide receivers Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, and Chris Autman-Bell should be champing at the bit at the prospect of going up against a short-handed defensive backfield. They weren’t particularly strong against the pass before this slew of injuries, so let’s hope the Gophers can take advantage of an obvious area of concern.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

I’d like to believe the Gophers can capitalize on their blowout of Purdue... But I hoped for the same last season after the Nebraska blowout and we all saw how that went. I’d like to believe Northwestern is due for a letdown after clinching the Big Ten West last week... But I don’t expect Pat Fitzgerald to overlook Minnesota, especially after the Purdue game. And the home team has been the victor in the last four contests between these two teams, coupled with the fact that the Gophers are 5-1 at home this season. Ultimately, I think Minnesota puts up a fight on Senior Day, but Pat prevails in the end. Northwestern 20, Minnesota 17.