Football: How Northwestern and Minnesota’s returning experience may impact the Big Ten West race


Carly Schulman/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern players run after a win against Indiana State. The Wildcats returned the lowest amount of production in the Power Five from the 2020 season this year.

Drew Schott, Gameday Editor


In the third quarter of its season opener against Ohio State, Minnesota lost star running back Mohamad Ibrahim to a season-ending lower leg injury.

Just over one month later, Trey Potts — Ibrahim’s replacement who rushed for 552 yards and six touchdowns in five games — was ruled out for the year after his hospitalization for an undisclosed injury. But the team’s rushing attack is currently the fourth-best in the Big Ten, averaging 210 yards per game. Part of the reason why the Golden Gophers’ reserves are succeeding on the ground is a veteran offensive line whose starters are all in their fourth, fifth or sixth years of college football.

Minnesota returned 80% of its production for the 2021 season, one of the highest marks in the country. The Golden Gophers’ (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) returning core has paid early dividends, as the squad is currently tied for first in the Big Ten West heading into a Saturday afternoon matchup with Northwestern (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten).

“This is probably the most experienced team in the Big Ten this year, and it shows,” Fitzgerald said. “I think they’ve got like 500 starts between their offensive linemen. It’s really impressive to watch them play collectively.”

Fitzgerald would know, considering he has coached in the league for 20 years. His Wildcats team returned 39% of production from last year — the lowest mark in the Power Five.

While Minnesota brought back 10 starters on both sides of the ball to start the season, the Cats had to break in new first-teamers at running back, wide receiver, tight end, left guard, right guard, defensive end, linebacker, cornerback and safety. At Big Ten Media Days in July, Fitzgerald addressed speculation about his roster’s readiness to compete for its third Big Ten West title in four years.

“I knew the focus a little bit today would be on what we have lost,” Fitzgerald said. “I couldn’t be more excited about what we have.”

However, NU’s new roster experienced early growing pains. The Cats cycled through three quarterbacks in their first three games. New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s group gave up more than 500 yards to its first three Power Five opponents, including a Fitzgerald-era record 657 against Nebraska.

Players such as sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski, senior linebacker Peter McIntyre and sophomore safety Coco Azema have solidified their roles as starters. But some position rooms are still in flux.

The Cats are already down two of their starting three wide receivers from their Week 1 projected depth chart. The other, graduate student wide receiver and leading wideout Stephon Robinson Jr., may not play Saturday because of a lower-body injury.

However, senior center Sam Gerak, in his fifth year with the Cats, has been impressed with players in new, increased roles despite the team’s sub-.500 record.

“Taking practice reps is very different than taking in-game, Big Ten live reps,” Gerak said. “Getting that experience under a lot of guys’ belt that haven’t been in the arena before is really good for them. Guys have continued to mature and learn the game better. It’s been good to see.”

Player development has been a hallmark of Fitzgerald’s program. This tenet is epitomized through athletes such as Gerak and graduate student linebacker Chris Bergin, who currently leads the Big Ten in tackles and is on track for the All-Big Ten status of former teammates Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher.

A similar trend is underway in Minneapolis with coach P.J. Fleck. During the 2019 matchup between the two Big Ten West rivals, wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell reeled in one catch for eight yards and defensive end Boye Mafe notched one tackle.

Today, Autman-Bell is the Golden Gophers’ leading receiver, and Mafe is one of the top defensive players in the Big Ten.

Minnesota shows flashes of the 2019 team that was one win away from the Big Ten Championship and NU is on track to potentially miss its second bowl season in the last three years. Saturday’s matchup may have massive implications for the final stretch of conference play.

The Golden Gophers’ experience could be the X-factor that lifts them past NU and toward a division title. But Bergin has a solution to counter it.

“We got a lot to clean up,” he said. “But effort, you can’t teach. So we got that. We’ll take care of the rest.”

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Twitter: @dschott328

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