Ahead of Saturday’s matchup between the Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-3) and the Northwestern Wildcats (1-8), we were able to connect with Gavin Dorsey, one of the editors-in-chief of Inside NU, and he was kind enough to field our questions.
The Daily Gopher: Can you explain to me, as best you can, these last four years at Northwestern? A three-win season in 2019, a trip to Indianapolis and a Top 10 ranking in 2020, another three-win season in 2021, and now staring down the barrel of a one-win season this year. How does that happen?
Gavin Dorsey: It’s certainly been a roller coaster ride for Wildcat fans over the last few years. After the Big Ten West Championship team in 2018, NU still fielded a pretty strong defense in 2019, but it was held back by the incompetence of the quarterback position and overall offensive dysfunction. In 2020, those issues were solved with a new offensive coordinator and a graduate transfer quarterback in Peyton Ramsey, who was able to come in and play at a successful level immediately.
That 2020 team was made almost entirely of seniors, and when the graduating class departed, the team got hit in nearly every position group. Northwestern went through three starting quarterbacks again in 2021, mirroring the season two years prior, but the biggest change was with the defense. When Mike Hankwitz retired following the Citrus Bowl win in 2020, he took Northwestern’s longstanding tradition of strong defenses with him, and the unit has been a disaster ever since.
His replacement, Jim O’Neil, has led a unit that has been incredibly susceptible to giving up long plays and has struggled in both the pass and run game. Even though the offense has struggled as well, it certainly doesn’t help when it’s given a 21-0 deficit entering its third drive (see: NU vs Duke). This season, it’s been the combination of bad offense, bad defense, bad playcalling, bad coaching, and poor execution. Every negative thing that could’ve happened has happened, and I’d be shocked if there weren’t changes at the coordinator position on both sides of the ball at the end of the season.
TDG: Is Pat Fitzgerald’s seat even remotely warm? I recognize and even respect what he has done at Northwestern, where he has won more games than any of his predecessors. But how much time does he have to turn this around before people start asking questions?
GD: In the eyes of the fans, I would absolutely say his seat is toasty. Two Big Ten West championships in three seasons were enough for people to think that 2019’s 3-9 record was a fluke, but Northwestern is now looking at three 3-9 or worse seasons in the last four years, with one outlier where the stars aligned perfectly. It’s definitely more difficult for fans to believe Fitz should go after all that he’s done for the program (on the other hand, I have not met a single person that doesn’t want the two coordinators gone), but the fanbase is growing impatient with a coach who hasn’t been willing to make adjustments when needed.
With that being said, there is no way Pat Fitzgerald is gone in the next two years. Even if the athletic director decides that he’s not content with Fitzgerald’s results, the man is synonymous with not just Northwestern football, but the university itself, and I think he’ll at least have another few years to see if he can return to glory with new coordinators.
TDG: On offense, Brendan Sullivan has started the Wildcats’ last three games at quarterback. How has he distinguished himself from former starter Ryan Hilinski, and has the offense shown improvement since he took over as starting signal caller?
GD: The biggest change is definitely the mobility that Brendan Sullivan brings to the table. To succeed at the highest level in college football, your quarterback needs to have at least *some* mobility, and truthfully, Ryan Hilinski was a statue in the pocket. Even if he has less of an arm, Sullivan is a guy who makes things happen, and has helped the team stay games, for the most part.
He’s drawn a bit of a tough break schedule-wise; Sullivan played great against Maryland, then had to go up against one of the top defenses in the nation in Iowa, then played in a windy vortex against Ohio State where Fitzgerald refused to put the ball in Sullivan’s hands and consequently ran the ball 60 times (several of which were in the Wildcat formation). When he’s given the opportunity to use his legs to buy himself time, Sullivan has showed promise, and hopefully his late-game neck injury isn’t significant enough to keep him out of this weekend and beyond.
TDG: We know all about Evan Hull, but does Northwestern have other playmakers at the skill positions?
GD: Behind Evan Hull in the backfield is Cam Porter, who was a standout at the end of his first year in 2020 before tearing his ACL prior to last season. He’s struggled a bit to get going with a lack of touches, but when given the opportunity, he’s looked like a solid No. 2 running back behind Hull. Against Ohio State, he picked up 50 yards on 11 carries, the best he’s looked since the season opener against Nebraska.
The leader in the receiving corps is Malik Washington, who uses his shiftiness to always find a way open from the slot. At just 5-foot-9, he can easily get lost in the defense and find holes to sit down in, and he’s certainly a weapon if the starter under center can hit him in stride.
TDG: Minnesota’s passing game has not been in sync for most of the season, but the Gophers have a formidable ground game led by Mohamed Ibrahim. How well do they match up against the Wildcats’ defense?
GD: If you watched the Ohio State or Penn State games, you can easily see how their game plans that beat the ‘Cats can directly be applied to Minnesota this weekend.
Neither team was particularly able to pass the ball well and relied heavily on the ground game, as I’m sure Minnesota will, especially if Tanner Morgan doesn’t play. The Ibrahim-led unit matches up well against Northwestern, as I believe 90% of the offenses in the country would, and Minnesota should look to run all over a team that’s been the worst in the Big Ten against the rush this year.
The defensive line isn’t usually able to get much push, which allows the running backs to tear down the linebackers and get through the secondary layer. However, defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore has been playing out of his mind lately, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him clog the middle again.
TDG: What is your score prediction for the game?
GD: I think the score honestly is so flexible, mostly due to the fact that neither team knows if its quarterback will be able to play yet. For the sake of the question, I’ll assume both starters are playing and go 24-13 Minnesota. Northwestern was able to run the ball right down the Buckeyes’ throats last weekend, but a combination of uncreative playcalling and missed opportunities squandered any chance of an upset. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian’s plays have been significantly uninspiring lately, and I think that ends up being the major tenet for a loss and Minnesota comes out on top.