The Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-2), riding a three-game winning streak, head to Evanston on Saturday to face the Northwestern Wildcats (3-4) at Ryan Field.
Can Northwestern score on offense?
The Wildcats came into the season needing to replace starting quarterback Payton Ramsey, their top four pass catchers, and two starters on the offensive line. Then starting running back Cam Porter suffered a season-ending leg injury in the season opener.
The issues for Northwestern start up front. The offensive line has struggled to consistently open up holes for sophomore running back Evan Hull. The Maple Grove native has 643 rushing yards and five touchdowns this season, but 342 of those yards and four of those touchdowns came against Indiana State and Ohio. Against Big Ten opponents, Hull is averaging 63 rushing yards per game, though he did break loose for a 75-yard touchdown run against Michigan. Expect Northwestern to utilize a rotation of Hull, senior Andrew Clair, and freshman Anthony Tyus III in the backfield.
The offensive line has also struggled in pass protection, allowing an average of two sacks per game. Former South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski has started the last four games under center for the Wildcats, taking over for Hunter Johnson. He is 71-of-128 (55.5%) for 759 passing yards, three touchdowns, and one interception this season. Hilinski has flashed his arm strength, touch passing, and deep ball accuracy at times, but he has struggled under pressure this season and has not been comfortable when forced out of the pocket.
Hilinski could be without the Wildcats’ leading receiver on Saturday after Stephon Robinson Jr. left the Michigan game with a lower body injury and did not return. Robinson has far and away been their most productive receiver, with 30 receptions for 425 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Northwestern has already lost sophomore wide receiver Bryce Kirtz for the season due to a non-contact injury. Kirtz is third on the team in receptions (19) and receiving yards (203). If Robinson is also ruled out, expect the bulk of the targets to go to junior Malik Washington.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
I am pleased to report that Northwestern ranks 122nd nationally in run defense, allowing an average of 218.3 rushing yards per game. After the retirement of veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and the departure of all but four starters on defense, this unit now bears a striking resemblance to the Gophers’ woeful defense from last season. Inexperienced players have stepped into starting roles and struggled with assignments, communication, and even tackling.
Fifth-year seniors Chris Bergin and Joe Spivak are back and starting at linebacker and defensive tackle, respectively, but Big Ten teams not named Rutgers have taken advantage of their porous defensive front, with Michigan State piling up 326 rushing yards, Nebraska gashing them for 427 rushing yards, and Michigan tallying 294 rushing yards. Minnesota’s mammoth offensive line and stable of running backs should be salivating at the thought of matching up against this defensive front after racking up 326 rushing yards against Maryland last week.
Against the pass, the Wildcats rank 30th nationally, allowing an average of 199.1 passing yards per game. But that could also be a byproduct of opposing offenses having so much success on the ground that they see no need to air it out. Northwestern does have a pair of playmakers at safety. Brandon Joseph was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season after recording six interceptions and he is tied for second on the team in tackles (52) this year. Coco Azema had a breakout game against Michigan, recording 10 solo tackles and forcing two fumbles.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
This is a favorable matchup for Minnesota on paper. The defense has been stout against the run and should be able to crank up the heat on Hilinski thanks in large part to a deep defensive line that has gotten better every week. On the other side of the ball, it shouldn’t take much to get the Gophers’ ground game rolling against a woeful Northwestern defensive front. Take care of business and secure bowl eligibility. Minnesota 30, Northwestern 13.