Minnesota Gophers (5-2) travel to Northwestern Wildcats (3-4) Week 9 Preview
The Minnesota Gophers, coming off 3 straight wins, will travel to play against the defending Big Ten West Champion Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday at 2:30pm. This is a big week for the Gophers and the program, as a win on Saturday will officially make the Gophers bowl eligible. This is not the Gophers final goal of the season, but it crosses off one of the expected season to season goals, one that we did not reach last season partly due to the shortened season. Another nice aspect of this season has been the depth and ability of the Gophers RB room. Even after losing 4 of their 7 RBs that we started the season with, the Gophers were still able to run for 326 yards against a large Big Ten opponent last weekend with a Junior and 2 Freshman. That also shows how dominant this experienced OL has been and is seemingly still improving. One thing I have noticed under the PJ Fleck era is that all of the position groups continue to improve as we progress through each season. The Gophers teams always start slow, but show continued improvement and discipline as the season moves along. This is a sign of a well-coached team, and a tremendous job by the Head Coach to hire the right position coaches under him to train each group.
Northwestern Wildcats: 2021 Northwestern is not the same team as it was last season when it won the Big Ten West. Don't get me wrong, Head Coach, Pat Fitzgerald, is a hell of a coach and can have his squad playing really solid usually once every 3-4 seasons. They just don't have the stadium or facilities that other Big Ten schools offer, so Northwestern usually capitalizes when they have a team of heavy upperclassmen and experienced players. This team reminds a lot of where Maryland is right now. Northwestern's wins have come against Indiana State (Larry Bird's college), Ohio (MAC) and Rutgers (0-4 in Big Ten play right now). Their losses have included Michigan State (38-21), Duke (30-23), Nebraska (56-7) and Michigan (33-7). The Wildcats began the season needing to replace their QB, their top 4 WRs, 2 starting OL, and they lost their best RB (Cam Porter) in the preseason. They also may be without their 1st and 3rd WRs this Saturday and they have a number of injuries on the defensive side of the ball. On defense, they are currently ranked 122nd in rushing defense, giving up almost 220 rushing yards per game...I don't think I need to say anything else because the Gophers should abuse this.
Minnesota Gophers: Expect the Gophers to RUN THE BALL. This game will be similar to the last few the Gophers have played. The trio of RBs (Williams, Irving, and Thomas) and the OL will be playing smash mouth football all day as the Gophers look to extend the winning streak to 4 games. The passing game should be quiet, yet efficient again, letting the backfield and OL control the day and likely run up the score. The defense continues to improve as the rushing defense is now 5th in the nation and the passing defense ranks right around 50th in the nation. Northwestern has a banged up WR core, an OL allowing just over 2 sacks per game, and the RB Evan Hull (Maple Grove native) is only averaging 63 rushing yards per game against Big Ten opponents. The Gophers need to make it a priority to hit Northwestern early and often and not give them any thought of a possible upset in this game. Fun fact: if the Gophers can come out with a win at Northwestern, it would mark only the 4th time in school history that they have started a season 3-0 on the road since 1961!
The Gophers enter this road game as 7.5 point favorites and I feel that is being generous. I predict the Gophers to win this game in convincing fashion, 38-10, improving to 6-2 and officially becoming bowl eligible with 4 games remaining and the possibility of still winning the Big Ten West.