Football: Mo Ibrahim and Minnesota pummel Northwestern’s defense as Cats’ skid reaches nine games


File photo by Alyce Brown

Members of the Northwestern defense jog across the field. The Wildcats surrendered over 300 rushing yards against Minnesota in a 31-3 defeat.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

MINNEAPOLIS — Northwestern’s hopes of snapping an eight-game losing streak at chilly Huntington Bank Stadium relied on holding its ground in a matchup of the Wildcats’ greatest weakness against Minnesota’s greatest strength — the NU rushing defense versus Golden Gopher running back Mohamed Ibrahim.

Ibrahim carried a streak of 17 straight games with at least 100 rushing yards into the contest, while the Cats’ rush defense entered the afternoon ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per game. The absence of junior linebacker Bryce Gallagher, tied for the Big Ten lead in total tackles after NU’s 21-7 loss against Ohio State, further tipped the scales in the Golden Gophers’ favor.

Like all too many of the Cats’ opponents this season, Ibrahim turned his contest against NU into a highlight reel. The standout back accounted for 178 of Minnesota’s 302 rushing yards and scored three red zone touchdowns, leading the Golden Gophers (7-3, 4-3) to a 31-3 win over an embattled Cats defense (1-9, 1-6). 

“He’s a great back, so we knew it would take all of us to assist in and help bring him down,” senior defensive back Jeremiah Lewis said. “He made some plays that we anticipated that we would make.”

Without starting quarterback Tanner Morgan, Minnesota made its commitment to the ground game apparent early on. On the first two drives, the rushing attack didn’t amount to much — the Golden Gophers punted after three plays on both drives — but on the third drive, Ibrahim found his groove and made NU pay.

Utilizing a mix of decisive cuts, punishing hits on the Cats’ defensive backs and explosiveness through gaping holes in NU’s defense, Ibrahim powered Minnesota to a nine-play, 82-yard touchdown drive that featured a pair of 14-yard dashes and a six-yard score. 

“Early on in the game in the first half, it looked like we fit gaps well, tackled well,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Then they went to their split outside zone game. We were calling plays from the sideline and it looked like they blocked us and we missed some tackles.”

Two drives later, the sixth-year back continued punishing the visitors through the mist of snow flurries. Ibrahim rushed nine times on the possession, converting three first downs and collecting his 50th career rushing touchdown on a one-yard punch-in.

Ibrahim finished the half with 116 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. Along with 50 rushing yards from Trey Potts, Minnesota asserted its will through the running game, outgaining the Cats 170-6 in rushing yards and building a 17-3 lead despite just 17 passing yards. NU junior running back Evan Hull, a graduate of nearby Maple Grove in suburban Minneapolis, couldn’t find space against the Golden Gopher front seven and didn’t pick up more than three yards on any of his first half carries.

“It starts up front,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re patient, they bleed the clock and so when you give them a lead, you need to try to play up-tempo because they’re going to try to shorten the game.”

Though Ibrahim headed to the tunnel at the end of the first half a couple minutes early, he returned in the second half to etch his name onto more records and put the Cats away. Another one-yard touchdown to open the fourth quarter gave him his 18th of the season to tie the Gophers’ single-season mark and boosted the Minnesota lead to 24-3. 

NU knew exactly the challenge that it faced in lining up against Ibrahim, whom the Cats played in 2018 and 2019. But the defense’s inability to fill gaps and make crucial tackles allowed Ibrahim and the Golden Gophers to play to their strengths and control time of possession. 

“You’ve got to out-execute them,” Fitzgerald said. “When you make them have to throw the ball and be multi-dimensional, it gives you a chance to make some big plays. But when they get a lead and can just pound it and shorten the game, it plays into their hands.”

After holding No. 2 Ohio State to its least productive offensive performance of the season to start November, NU’s defense regressed and gave its fans another familiar result — a noncompetitive Big Ten loss on the road.

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