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Minnesota Football vs. Northwestern: The Elite, The Meh & The Ugly

The Gophers ran roughshod over the Wildcats

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-2) marched into Ryan Field on Saturday and became bowl-eligible with a 41-14 victory over the Northwestern Wildcats (3-5).

The Elite

Derik LeCaptain’s 24-yard rushing touchdown. The situation at running back gives me anxiety, with the Gophers now down to two healthy scholarship backs after Bryce Williams was carted to the locker room with a lower leg injury against Northwestern and did not return. But the silver lining is that it blessed us with Derik LeCaptain as the team’s emergency running back late in the fourth quarter. The walk-on linebacker was a prolific running back in high school, racking up 5,199 rushing yards and 100 touchdowns in his career. There was pandemonium on the Minnesota sideline after LeCaptain broke multiple tackles en route to the end zone for the score.

The Gophers’ new dynamic duo. Minnesota’s future at running back has become their present thanks to an injury-ravaged depth chart, but Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise “Bucko” Irving are making the most of it. Irving, who is from the Chicago area and was likely playing in front of friends and family on Saturday, led the team with 110 rushing yards and two touchdowns, including a 41-yard score. For the second straight game, both Irving and Thomas rushed for at least 100 yards.

Justin Walley’s scoop and score. The true freshman cornerback has been impossible to keep off the field this season and he made his first career start on Saturday. On the Wildcats’ first play from scrimmage, Mariano Sori-Marin forced Northwestern wide receiver Malik Washington to fumble and Walley scooped it up, returning it 25 yards for a touchdown. It felt like a tone-setting touchdown for the Gophers — and spotted them a 10-0 first quarter lead — after the Wildcats’ defense had limited Minnesota to a field goal on their opening drive.

Minnesota’s bend-but-don’t-break defense. The Gophers rank in the Top 25 in the country in scoring defense, allowing an average of 18.9 points per game. They held Northwestern to 14 points and have now held their opponents to 16 points or fewer in five of their last six games. Since allowing 45 points to Ohio State in the season opener, Minnesota has only allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points twice. Credit must also be attributed to the Gophers’ suffocating offense, which dominated the time of possession against Northwestern — 40:09 to 19:51 — to limit their opportunities to score.

Tanner Morgan kept the ball on the zone read. It was glorious.

Mike Brown-Stephens. With Daniel Jackson back after missing the last two games with an undisclosed injury, the Gophers’ receiving corps was healthy for the first time in weeks. You might have expected that to lead to a big game for Chris Autman-Bell, Dylan Wright, or Jackson, but it was Brown-Stephens who was Tanner Morgan’s go-to target on Saturday. Brown-Stephens led the team with four receptions for 63 receiving yards, three of which went for first downs.

Minnesota sits alone atop the Big Ten West. There’s no place I’d rather be.

The Meh

The Minnesota run defense. Nitpicking here when you consider the final score, but I didn’t like how much success the Wildcats had running the ball at times. Running back Evan Hull finished with 107 rushing yards on 15 carries, averaging 7.1 yards per carry. Defensive tackle De’Angelo Carter did not make the trip, so I don’t know much of a factor his absence was, but it seemed too easy at times for Hull to slip through the scrum and get to the second level. You could make an argument that the Gophers’ secondary had the better day on defense, as Northwestern made several attempts to throw the football but finished 11-of-22 for 98 passing yards.

The Gophers’ red zone offense. Why in God’s name are you calling for Cole Kramer to run the Wildcat on 3rd & 7? I also wasn’t a fan of calling for a fade pass to Daniel Jackson in the end zone on 3rd & 6. Both third down attempts in the red zone were unsuccessful and led to field goals, which made for a frustrating first quarter offensively. I’d like to see more creativity.

The Ugly

Bryce Williams’ injury. Wrap Irving and Thomas in bubble wrap, please.