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Minnesota Football vs Northwestern: The Elite, The Meh, and The Ugly

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The Gophers bounced back from their first loss to notch a historic win

Minnesota v Northwestern Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

The No. 10-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers bounced back from their first loss of the season to improve to 10-1 with a 38-22 victory over the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday. I realize that nearly all eyes have turned to next week’s battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, but I would encourage you to take at least a moment to appreciate the win over the Wildcats.

The Elite

The Gophers’ scoring drought at Ryan Field is over. When Minnesota scored on their first offensive possession of the game, it represented their first points at Ryan Field since 2013. In their last two trips to Evanston, the Gophers had been outscored 66-0.

Rashod Bateman. The sophomore wide receiver had three touchdowns — all of them impressive catches — and hauled in seven receptions for 78 yards, putting him at 1,023 receiving yards for the season. Bateman is second in the conference in receiving yards and his 10 touchdowns are tied for the most by a single receiver in the Big Ten this season.

Tyler Johnson. Bateman is second in the Big Ten in receiving yards because Tyler Johnson is now first with 1,025 yards. And take a wild guess who is tied with Bateman for the conference lead in receiving touchdowns with 10. The Gophers’ senior wide receiver tallied his third consecutive game with at least 100 receiving yards and recorded a touchdown for the fifth consecutive game. This third down throw from Tanner Morgan to Johnson in the second quarter was the highlight for me, because I had the perfect view of it from the stands:

Tanner Morgan. The redshirt sophomore quarterback bounced back from a concussion at Iowa to maintain his position atop the Big Ten passing leader board, throwing for 211 passing yards and four touchdowns against the Wildcats. His pocket presence left much to be desired on a few occasions and he had an ill-advised interception, but I can forgive a lot when you break the school record for passing touchdowns in a single season.

The Gophers’ ground game. After struggling against Penn State and Iowa, Minnesota’s rushing attack came roaring back to life in Evanston. All three of the Gophers’ backs got in on the action, as Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, and Mohamed Ibrahim combined to rack up 197 rushing yards on 35 carries, averaging 5.6 yards per carry.

Minnesota made all kinds of history. Let me count the ways:

  • With a minimum of two games left, Tanner Morgan set a new program record for passing touchdowns in a season (26), breaking Adam Weber’s previous record of 24
  • Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman became the first pair of Gopher pass catchers to each record 1,000 receiving yards or more in a single season
  • The Gophers won seven conference games for the first time in program history
  • Minnesota reached 10 wins for the second time in the last 110 years and for the first time since 2003, when the Gophers needed a bowl game to notch their tenth victory

The Meh

The Gopher defense. I can already see the “The defense belongs under Ugly” comments now, but hear me out. Through Northwestern’s first four offensive possessions of the game, Minnesota’s defense was elite. The Wildcats accumulated -3 yards combined and one first down on those four drives. What changed? On that last drive, the Gophers knocked starting quarterback Hunter Johnson out of the game on a strip sack. Enter fourth-string quarterback Andrew Marty. The change at quarterback precipitated a change in the offensive game plan for Northwestern, and Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi had to adjust on the fly for a quarterback who had no meaningful game film prior to Saturday. With Marty under center, the Wildcats shifted to more of a quarterback power read offense, and sloppy tackling allowed them to gain traction on the ground.

Surrendering 20 points to a Northwestern offense averaging 14.5 points per game is certainly disappointing, but the Gopher defense played well enough to win and helped build that 21-0 lead in the first half. They now have a week to clean up their tackling ahead of Wisconsin.

Turnovers. Minnesota lost the turnover battle, which is especially disappointing considering how turnover-prone Northwestern has been all season. The Gophers’ lone turnover on offense was an interception, Tanner Morgan’s first since Maryland. I’ve heard conflicting reports as to what happened on the play — either Morgan was aiming for the underneath route and his intended receiver fell down during the throw or he didn’t notice the linebacker drifting in zone coverage to take away the slant — but it was an unforced error either way.

The Ugly

Minnesota’s special teams. At this point in the season, there isn’t much left to say. It is what it is. The Gophers are 10-1 in spite of their struggles on special teams. Demetrius Douglas tested the hearts of Gopher fans all afternoon, nearly losing a pair of fumbles returning punts and kickoffs. He also should have fielded the 66-yard punt that ended up pinning the Gophers at their own 5-yard line in the second quarter, setting up a safety on the very next play. Minnesota nearly lost the second half kickoff when Northwestern dropped a short kick into the middle of their return formation and no one seemed to want to field it. The Gophers’ kickoffs were subpar, as Grant Ryerse had a kick out of bounds and the Wildcats averaged 20 yards on their returns.

The good news is that true freshman kicker Michael Lantz was back after missing the last two games. He was a perfect 5-for-5 on extra points and nailed a 38-yard field goal.

Penalties. Minnesota is one of the least penalized teams in the country, but that was not the case against Northwestern. Seven penalties in a game is far too many.