Football: Northwestern returns to Big Ten West action as Minnesota comes to Evanston


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Quarterback Ryan Hilinski drops back in the pocket. Northwestern will take on Minnesota, the Big Ten West leader, this weekend.

John Riker, Sports Editor


Northwestern rebounded from a lopsided 56-7 road loss to Nebraska by holding off Rutgers 21-7 Oct. 16, earning the Wildcats their first Big Ten win and giving the home crowd something to celebrate on Homecoming weekend.

After another blowout road loss to Michigan, NU (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) will again look to find its footing at Ryan Field. But Minnesota (5-2, 3-1) is no easy opponent. The Golden Gophers are currently tied atop the Big Ten West standings and will pose a tough test in the trenches for the Cats.

“(We have a) huge challenge against the Gophers this weekend,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They are physical, I’m really impressed with both sides of the line of scrimmage.”

Minnesota will come to Ryan Field with momentum on its side, boasting wins over conference opponents Purdue, Nebraska and Maryland in its past three matchups. A stingy run defense forged its path to the top of the Big Ten West standings. While the Golden Gophers have allowed only 85.7 yards per game on the ground, NU gives up a Big Ten-worst 218.3 rushing yards per game.

Minnesota’s offensive game plan to open the year seemed simple — pound the ball with 2020 All-Big Ten running back Mohamed Ibrahim. But his season-ending leg injury in the Golden Gophers’ opener against Ohio State dealt the team a major blow. More than a month later, running back Trey Potts, who averaged more than 100 yards per game, also suffered an undisclosed season-ending injury.

Still, the Minnesota rushing attack has carried the offensive load, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game amid a pedestrian season from quarterback Tanner Morgan. The Golden Gophers have also held up along the offensive line, allowing just nine sacks in seven games.

“I’m really impressed with their backfield,” Fitzgerald said. “You’re down your top two backs, but I don’t think that matters. Last week against Maryland, they had a three-headed monster going there pretty successfully.”

NU’s rushing attack provided the team’s lone offensive highlight against the Wolverines last Saturday on sophomore running back Evan Hull’s 75-yard house call at the end of the first half, but the running back core has struggled to find consistency against Big Ten opponents.

Hull, who hails from Maple Grove, Minn., has emerged as the Cats’ big play threat in the backfield, with runs of 75 and 90 yards this season and 643 yards on the season, fifth in the Big Ten. But despite a couple of gaudy rushing performances against NU’s Football Championship Subdivision opponents early in the season, Hull has yet to break 100 yards in a conference game. The Cats will also look to get graduate transfer Andrew Clair and freshman Anthony Tyus III active in the rushing attack to take pressure off sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski.

“We got to be able to move the ball consistently and then obviously score points. That’s what everybody’s identity wants to be,” Fitzgerald said. “Number one, (we want) to try to have consistency and establish the line of scrimmage and be able to make explosive plays.”

The rivalry between the two Midwest programs returns after a one-year hiatus, with last season’s matchup canceled due to coronavirus concerns within the Golden Gophers’ program. The Cats have won two of three games since Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck’s arrival in 2017, though the then-No. 11 Golden Gophers pummeled NU in a 38-22 rout in the most recent matchup in 2019.

Saturday’s afternoon game will also mark the first of five consecutive Big Ten West contests to close NU’s regular season, with the division’s top two teams taking trips to Evanston on back-to-back weekends. The homestand offers the Cats the opportunity to either climb out of the division’s cellar and into bowl contention or deal what has been a disappointing season to date a crushing blow.

With NU searching for answers and looking to both familiar and fresh faces to step up, Fitzgerald is preaching consistency in the thick of the Big Ten season.

“One of the biggest things is just staying steady and making sure that all you have to do is your own job and do it well,” senior center Sam Gerak said. “That’s going to lead to winning games.”

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Twitter: @john__riker

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