Football: What to Watch For: Northwestern travels to Minnesota for Big Ten West battle


Daily file photo by Alyce Brown

Junior running back Evan Hull rushes with the ball. Hull eclipsed 120 rushing yards and scored a touchdown against No. 2 Ohio State.

Charlotte Varnes, Sports Editor

Fighting the rain and gale-force winds, Northwestern nearly pulled off a miracle Saturday against No. 2 Ohio State.

The Wildcats (1-8, 1-5 Big Ten) played like a team renewed: the secondary exposed seemingly all of the Buckeyes’ (9-0, 6-0) weaknesses, sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan showcased his electric playmaking ability and the play was gritty across the field. But Ohio State is ranked among the best of the best for a reason, and a second-half comeback sealed NU’s eighth straight loss. 

Now, taking to the skies for a contest against Minnesota, the Cats are in search of their first victory in the United States in 389 days. The Golden Gophers, ranked fifth in the Big Ten West, look to win their third straight contest against NU. 

Here are a few things to keep an eye on as Minnesota and the Cats meet on Saturday. 

  1. Can NU’s defense recreate the Ohio State magic?

Sure, it was a loss. But after losing eight straight matchups, holding the No. 2 team in the country to just 21 points – its lowest total since facing Notre Dame in September – feels like an achievement. 

The Cats’ defense delivered a dynamic, all-around team performance on Saturday. Junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher led NU with seven tackles, joined by 11 other teammates who recorded at least one tackle. Their efforts were key to stymieing the Buckeyes, who looked out of their element during much of the first half. 

Coach Pat Fitzgerald credited the Cats’ defense for their strong performance Saturday, saying the number of pass breakups and one-on-one situations stood out to him.

“I don’t think that had a lot to do with the wind,” Fitzgerald said. “It had a lot to do with the way our guys executed.”

On paper, the Golden Gophers should pose less of a challenge. Minnesota’s offense ranks sixth in the Big Ten — seemingly less frightening than Ohio State’s No. 1 unit. 

But the Golden Gophers know how to make plays when it counts, ranking first in the Big Ten in third down conversions. Fitzgerald said Minnesota is efficient on first and second downs, leading to “advantageous” situations on third downs. It will be worth watching whether NU’s defense can hold strong against the gritty Golden Gophers’ offense. 

2. Weather takes center stage again

Temperatures are dropping, the wind is whipping and Big Ten football is heating up.

Saturday’s contest against the Buckeyes drew national attention for the wild weather. Winds reached up to 80 miles per hour in Cook County during the game, which nearly went into a weather delay. 

The Cats’ matchup against Minnesota will make it two in a row. Sure, there won’t be wild winds. But the high will be 31 degrees on Saturday — a significant drop from a balmy, 62 degree kickoff temperature against Ohio State. 

Fitzgerald said the sudden weather changes make Big Ten football fun. Ahead of kickoff against the Golden Gophers, he said the Cats are focusing on taking it all in stride.

“You (have) gotta lean into it,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what we talk about here: you embrace it and you enjoy it.”

3. Last ditch hope of winning the Big Ten West

Did you know that NU can still win the Big Ten West? Well, now you do.

Regardless of whether this perfect storm can happen, the Cats’ contest against Minnesota begins the march toward the end of the season and, eventually, the Big Ten Championship. 

Sitting at 1-8 and riding an eight-game losing streak, the stakes are high for NU’s next three matchups against the Golden Gophers, Purdue and Illinois. Perhaps bowl eligibility is out of the question. Perhaps achieving the Big Ten West title is unthinkable. But the Cats have a chance to rack up their first win since Week 0 and prove that a dynamic performance against Ohio State wasn’t a fluke.

For Fitzgerald, focusing on the basics has been key to readying for the tough task ahead.

“We (have) got to continue to stress what’s important, and that’s fundamental football,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s consistent execution. It’s playing clean football for 60 minutes.”