Football: How Minnesota took Northwestern’s spot at the top of the Big Ten West


Daily file photo by Noah Frick-Alofs

Tanner Morgan attempts a pass in a 2018 game between Northwestern and Minnesota. The Gophers have had a very successful 2019 season.

Charlie Goldsmith, Reporter


Minnesota’s expectation shattering season had an innocent start with nail-biting early wins against South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. The Golden Gophers were expected to be one of the worst teams in the Big Ten West in 2019, and they played like it in September.

Two months later, No. 10 Minnesota (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten)is rolling into Ryan Field as the top team in the Big Ten West to play Northwestern (2-8, 0-7). After going 3-6 in conference contests last season and playing almost as poorly as the Wildcats have this year, the Golden Gophers are completing one of the biggest turnarounds in the country.

“I’ve been telling people all year, confidence and swagger and momentum is a real thing in this game,” senior center Jared Thomas said about Minnesota. “You see a team last year that played really hard but got down toward the end of the year when they saw that a bowl bid was out of their reach… When a team is confident and when things are clicking on all cylinders, you see what they’ve been able to do this year.”

Last year, NU was the team that defied preseason expectations and made a surprising run to the Big Ten Championship Game. This season, Minnesota is on track to do the same thing. After losing to Maryland and Illinois in an underwhelming 2018 season, the Golden Gophers have turned their fortune by establishing one of the best offenses in the Big Ten.

Led by quarterback Tanner Morgan, Minnesota has scored 30 or more points in six of its seven conference games. With an effective four-man committee at running back and two all-Big Ten caliber receivers in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, the Golden Gophers won their first six conference games by an average of 23 points.

Minnesota tripped up last week at Iowa, losing its first game of the season in a four-point defeat. The Golden Gophers had a chance at a game-winning drive with less than two minutes remaining, but Morgan was sacked on the first two plays of that drive. Showing signs of a concussion, Morgan was taken out of the game, and backup Cole Kramer couldn’t lead Minnesota to a win.

Morgan has been in concussion protocol this week, and his status is uncertain for Saturday’s game against the Wildcats. But this game has little big-picture significance for the Golden Gophers –– regardless of the result Saturday, they’ll likely have to win their meeting with Wisconsin next week to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game.

“Everything we want and everything we wrote down is right in front of us,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “Nothing’s changed. How many times after Week [12], when we’re 9-1 at the University of Minnesota, is everything right in front of us, and we control our own destiny? How many times does that happen?”

After NU earned its second win of the season last week against UMass, coach Pat Fitzgerald said the Cats still have areas they need to improve to compete with a team like the Golden Gophers. Junior quarterback Aidan Smith threw for 76 yards and added two interceptions last week, and NU lost the turnover battle.

Fitzgerald said he isn’t using Minnesota’s high ranking as a source of motivation or discussing his team as a potential “spoiler.” Instead, he said he just wants to see the Cats show improvement in the same areas that have been plaguing them all season.

“I’m happy for Minnesota, they’re having a great year,” Fitzgerald said. “But we’ve got to get prepared this week and get guys to play better. We got to take care of the ball, and we’ve got to play the way the blueprint is for us to win. If we do that, we’ll give ourselves the chance to compete against a great team.”

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