The Minnesota Golden Gophers are 0-0 in the Northwestern Championship Season. To be champions on Saturday in Evanston, the Gophers will need to bounce back from their first loss of the year and get back in rhythm on offense against a tough Wildcat defense.
Are they any good this year?
2019 Record: 2-8 (0-7, 7th B1G West)
S&P+ Ranking: 84th
Can they score on offense?
Can they score? Yes. Do they score? Not often.
The Wildcats have scored more than 15 points in only three games this season, and those games were against UNLV, Purdue, and UMass. They rank 126th in the country in passing offense (125.4 passing yards per game), 62nd in rushing offense (165.5 rushing yards per game), and 129th in scoring offense (14.5 points per game). Two of those numbers are even more anemic when you look strictly at their performance in Big Ten conference play: 128 passing yards per game, 136 rushing yards per game, and 9.2 points per game.
Consider this: Northwestern has only scored seven total touchdowns over the course of seven games against Big Ten opponents this season.
Clemson transfer quarterback Hunter Johnson was expected to be the heir apparent to four-year starter Clayton Thorson, but senior T.J. Green got the starting nod in the season opener against Stanford. Green suffered a season-ending foot injury in that game, opening the door for Johnson to step under center. But his brief tenure as starting quarterback was disastrous. The redshirt sophomore completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (1) before being sidelined with an injury of his own. The Wildcats have since turned the reins over to redshirt junior Aidan Smith, who has completed exactly 50 percent of his passes but also thrown more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (3).
Part of the problem is a depleted wide receiver corps. Senior Bennett Skowronek, the Wildcats’ second leading receiver a season ago, hasn’t played since September after undergoing surgery for an undisclosed injury. Sophomore J.J. Jefferson, who leads all other receivers with two touchdowns, is out indefinitely with an undisclosed injury. Junior Kyric McGowan, third on the team in receptions, missed the game against UMass with — you guessed it — an undisclosed injury. The one constant in the passing game has been junior wide receiver Riley Lees, who holds a commanding team lead in receptions (43) and receiving yards (330).
Northwestern has had more success running the ball, albeit limited success. But the Wildcats have been similarly bitten by the injury bug at running back, with Isaiah Bowser — who emerged late last year to rescue their running game en route to a division crown — is out for the season. Freshmen Drake Anderson has carried the load, leading the team in carries (120) and rushing yards (513). Fellow freshman back Evan Hull had been a non-factor up until last week, when he racked up 220 rushing yards and four touchdowns against UMass. But now that he has played in four games, Hull may be sidelined in the final two weeks to preserve his redshirt.
A lack of explosive plays has hampered the Wildcats on offense all season long, but they have also been plagued with turnovers, losing nine fumbles and throwing 14 interceptions. They are also one of the worst offenses in the country on third down, converting 34 percent of their third down attempts, which ranks 112th nationally.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Northwestern’s defense might be as good as their offense is bad. But they’ve been hung out to dry by an offense that can’t consistently manufacture points or even stay on the field.
They are strong against the pass — allowing 202.8 passing yards per game — and decent against the run — allowing 141.7 rushing yards per game. But both Indiana and Purdue took advantages of mismatches in the secondary, each of them throwing for 270 passing yards. Even UMass, a team that came in averaging 164 passing yards per game, was able to rack up 217 passing yards. Injuries have certainly taken a toll, as starting senior cornerback Trae Williams has been banged up since the season opener and sophomore corner Greg Newsome II is out for the season. Through it all, sophomore cornerback Cam Ruiz has emerged with 39 tackles and six pass break-ups. The Wildcats also have a solid pair of safeties in Travis Whillock and J.R. Pace.
But Northwestern has struggled to generate a consistent pass rush. Senior defensive end Joe Gaziano and senior defensive tackle Alex Miller are their top two sack leaders, but the latter has only notched one sack in conference play. Gaziano has recorded one sack in five of their seven Big Ten games, but even with the extra attention diverted his direction by opposing offensive lines, his teammates on the defensive line have not been able to capitalize.
As has been their calling card under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats are strong at linebacker, led by leading tacklers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher. Minnesota has struggled to establish the run in their last two games and that has put a lot of pressure on the passing game. The passing game has certainly been up to the task, but with questions surrounding the status of Gopher quarterback Tanner Morgan, it would be wise for Minnesota to clean up their run blocking — especially at the second level — and open more running lanes for Rodney Smith.
The Wildcats’ defense has also been formidable in the red zone, where the Gophers struggled against Iowa. In 35 drives inside the red zone, Northwestern has only allowed opposing teams to score on 80 percent of those trips, and held them to a field goal on nine occasions.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
A fair warning: Northwestern’s offense may be one of the worst in the country, but their defense will keep them in this game, at least early. The halftime scores from their conference games thus far: 14-3 (Michigan State), 7-3 (Wisconsin), 10-3 (Nebraska), 31-3 (Ohio State), 10-0 (Iowa), 24-3 (Indiana), and 16-7 (Purdue). The outliers have been Ohio State and Indiana. The former did what the Buckeyes have been doing to opposing defenses all season, and the Hoosiers capitalized on short fields from two first half fumbles. Things may get especially rough if Minnesota is without Tanner Morgan, who experienced concussion-like symptoms at the end of the Iowa game. I have no idea what to expect from either of the Gophers’ true freshman back-up quarterbacks.
There is also Minnesota’s unfortunate recent history in road games against Northwestern. The Wildcats have outscored the Gophers 66-0 in their last two games at Ryan Field. Ultimately, though, I think the better team prevails, even in an ugly game. Minnesota 24, Northwestern 13.