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

One final tune-up before Hate Week and then Axe Week

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-3) rode Mohamed Ibrahim and another stout defensive effort to a 31-3 win over the Northwestern Wildcats (1-9) on Saturday.

The Elite

Mohamed Ibrahim. The Gophers’ identity on offense continues to be handing off the ball to Mohamed Ibrahim and watching as he grinds the opposing defense into dust. That formula worked against the Wildcats, as Ibrahim tied a season high with 36 carries for 178 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He extended his streak of consecutive games with 100+ rushing yards to 18 games, and his third touchdown tied him for the program’s single-season record for rushing touchdowns (18). Ibrahim is also now second all-time in career rushing yards (4,264) at Minnesota, passing Rodney Smith and trailing Darrell Thompson by 390 yards.

The Minnesota offensive line. I was not impressed with them during the first couple drives of the game, but the Minnesota Movers got better and more physical as the game went along. They paved the way for 302 rushing yards and did so against a Wildcats defense that knew the Gophers were going to run the ball down their throat to the tune of 58 rushing attempts. That’s not easy, so I’ll give credit where credit is due. Their true test will come in these next two games.

Zach Evans. The true freshman saw his first action of the season and only needed three carries before he found the end zone for his first career touchdown.

The Gopher defense. No slow start this week. Minnesota set the tone early on defense, turning away Northwestern on fourth and short in Gopher territory. That was the first of three turnovers on downs that the Gophers would force in the game, in addition to holding the Wildcats to 3-for-12 on third down. Minnesota halted the Northwestern ground game, limiting running back Evan Hull to 54 rushing yards on 13 carries. The Wildcats finished with 206 passing yards as a team, but 76 of those came on two plays in their only scoring drive of the game.

The pass rush. Dare I say the Gophers’ pass rush has been showing signs of life in recent weeks? Jah Joyner continues to be the standout on the defensive line, registering a quarterback hurry and combining for a sack with Braelen Oliver. Beanie Bishop recorded a sack on a corner blitz, and Kyler Baugh and Jalen Logan-Redding each had a quarterback hurry. Credit to defensive coordinator Joe Rossi for continuing to find ways to generate pressure.

Tyler Nubin. It was another solid game for the Gophers’ secondary and Tyler Nubin was the standout once again, finishing with five total tackles and his fourth interception of the season.

The Meh

Minnesota’s Big Ten West chances aren’t dead yet. With Purdue upsetting Illinois on their home turf and Iowa delivering the knockout punch to Wisconsin, there is now a four-way tie atop the Big Ten West between Purdue, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. Unfortunately for the Gophers, two of those teams hold the tiebreaker over them. To have a chance, Minnesota needs to win out and beat both Iowa and Wisconsin, which is no small task. But they would also need Illinois to lose to Michigan or Northwestern and for Purdue to lose to Northwestern or Indiana. It’s unlikely that everything will break their way, but once again the Gophers are back in contention in the Big Ten West down the stretch in late November.

The Ugly

The passing game. Head coach P.J. Fleck has explained before that he believes a balanced offense means being able to do whatever it takes to win the game, whether that means rushing for 300 yards or passing for 300 yards. Saturday’s game against Northwestern certainly called for the former, but I highly doubt they’ll be able to use that same recipe the next two weeks against Iowa and Wisconsin. You can’t be one-dimensional on offense against either of those defenses and expect to win, and Athan Kaliakmanis’s performance against the Wildcats — 7-of-13 for 64 passing yards — doesn’t inspire much confidence that this offense will be able to pass when they need to in these final two games of the regular season.

It bugs me when Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca seem to abandon the passing game like they did on Saturday and run the ball 58 times, because every pass attempt in a game is an opportunity for everyone involved in the passing game to get better. Sacrificing those valuable game reps seems so short-sighted. It does not give me much confidence that Kaliakmanis, the pass catchers, and the offensive line will be prepared when called upon.