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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Northwestern - Opponent Preview

This is not a good football team

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-3) look to extend their winning streak to three games when the Northwestern Wildcats (1-8) visit Huntington Stadium on Saturday.

Can Northwestern score on offense?

After Mick McCall departed Northwestern following the 2019 season, concluding a 12-year tenure as offensive coordinator for the Wildcats, head coach Pat Fitzgerald hired Boston College’s Mike Bajakian to lead his offense. His three-year tenure has been less than stellar, punctuated by poor quarterback play, with the lone exception of Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey in 2020.

Since Ramsey graduated, it has been a revolving door under center. This season, Northwestern has asked a lot of former South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski, who averaged 44.4(!) pass attempts per game through the Wildcats’ first five games. He has since been supplanted by redshirt freshman Brendan Sullivan, who has started their last three games. But Bajakian’s insistence on slinging the ball around is especially bizarre when you consider that fourth-year running back Evan Hull is their most dangerous weapon on offense.

The Maple Grove product is a physical runner who has been effective on the ground for Northwestern, rushing for 701 yards and four touchdowns on 166 carries. Hull has also been in the fixture in the passing game and is second on the team in receptions (46) and receiving yards (465) and tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns (2).

The Wildcats’ inability to play to their strengths speaks to a lack of identity on offense. They’ve often let the circumstances of the game dictate their style of play, rather than vice versa.

There have at least been signs of improvement with Sullivan under center. He has completed at least 70% of his passes in each of their last three games and proven to be much more mobile than Hilinski, averaging double-digit rushing attempts. But Sullivan also threw two interceptions against Maryland and was sacked seven times by Iowa, and this offense is still only averaging 14.6 points per game — their season average is 16.7 — with him as their starting quarterback.

Simply put, this is not a good offense. The Wildcats have not been able to run the ball consistently, lack dynamic playmakers at the skill positions, and struggle to protect the quarterback.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Offensive firepower has never been a staple of the Pat Fitzgerald era at Northwestern. But they’ve typically been able to rely on fundamentally sound defense to keep them in games.

Not this season.

The Wildcats have been especially bad against the run, ranking 112th nationally in run defense by allowing an average of 188.7 rushing yards per game. Their interior run defense, led by defensive tackle Adetomiwa Adebawore, was able to get stops against Ohio State in a game that saw the weather conditions eliminate the passing game altogether for both teams. But eventually the Buckeyes were able to break through, finishing with 207 rushing yards.

Linebacker play has also not been up to Northwestern’s standards either, as Bryce Gallagher and co. have often been undisciplined in their run fits, leaving them susceptible to chunk plays.

The Wildcats’ secondary has been solid, only allowing 204.7 passing yards per game, which ranks 35th in the country. But they play a lot of Cover 4, which could work to the Gophers’ advantage. The goal of Cover 4 is to keep receivers in front of the defensive backs and allow the defensive backs to make plays on the ball. But the cushion that creates for receivers could be a blessing in disguise for Minnesota, whose receivers have frequently struggled to get separation against press man coverage. Throwing underneath the coverage, rather than trying to press down field, could be how the Gophers get in a rhythm through the air and keep the chains moving.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

I’ll be honest, my biggest concern going into this game is the Nebraska curse. Every team that has beaten the Huskers this season has lost their next game, without exception:

  • Northwestern lost to Duke
  • Georgia Southern lost to UAB
  • Oklahoma lost to Kansas State
  • Purdue lost to Wisconsin
  • Illinois lost to Michigan State

Can the Gophers break the curse? God, I hope so. Minnesota 24, Northwestern 10.