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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Football: What to Watch For: Northwestern prepares for prime time Big Ten home opener against Minnesota

Daily file photo by Micah Sandy
Northwestern’s team huddles together during a pause against Rutgers. The Wildcats host Minnesota under the lights at Ryan Field on Saturday night in NU’s Big Ten home opener.

When Northwestern last took the field against Minnesota, running back Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for 178 yards and three scores en route to a 31-3 Golden Gophers victory.

While Ibrahim is no longer suiting up in maroon and gold for coach P.J. Fleck, Minnesota (2-1, 1-0 Big Ten) will march into Ryan Field on Saturday night looking to enforce a similarly imposing ground attack. Conversely, after surrendering 268 rushing yards to then-No. 21 Duke last weekend, the Wildcats (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) will hope to shore up their run defense in the team’s Big Ten home opener.

Here are three storylines to read before NU’s clash with Minnesota this weekend:

1. ‘Cats defense prepares for Minnesota running game

Against the Blue Devils, NU posted 21 missed tackles, the team’s most in a game since recording 25 against Michigan in 2021, according to InsideNU’s Bradley Locker.

The ‘Cats have allowed nearly 400 rushing yards in their two games against Power-Five opponents: Rutgers and Duke. Minnesota is averaging 173.7 rushing yards per game, the sixth-most in the conference. The group is led by freshman running back Darius Taylor, who has tallied 331 yards on 55 carries for two touchdowns in the team’s two most recent contests against Eastern Michigan and UNC.

NU Interim head coach David Braun said stifling the Golden Gophers’ rushing attack starts with the team’s “fundamentals and technique” — no matter how cliché that may be. Braun was blunt in assessment, saying the team needs to “define our gaps up front, violently get off of blocks, understand the fit structure and play with great leverage.” Most of all, the defense needs to “tackle well.”

Braun said “it’s easy to say all those things” but that the onus falls on the coaching staff to allow the defense to “play fast.”

2. “Special teams make special teams”

NU received seven Blue Devils’ kickoffs last weekend, opting to return four. Senior wide receiver A.J. Henning and senior defensive back Coco Azema each returned two of them, totaling 53 and 48 yards respectively. The decision to allow Henning and Azema to return more than 50 percent of an opponent’s kickoffs is a shift from previous seasons — for instance, Evan Hull returned just nine in 2022.

Braun said the decision to let Henning and Azema try to make plays in the return game arose from a confidence in their ability to secure advantageous field position for the offense and create a spark.

“Both guys have the ability to do some really good things with the ball in their hands,” Braun said. “(On) some of those returns, a lot of good things are going on. We’re getting the ball out to the 30 and we’re a block away from really springing one and flipping the field.”

While optimism abounds surrounding the prospects of the team’s kick return unit, Braun instilled his faith in the punt game.

Senior punter Hunter Renner, who had a pair of first quarter shanks against Duke, is averaging 38.4 yards per punt through three games — nearly three yards fewer than backup senior punter Luke Akers in 2022. Still, Braun remains committed to Mishawaka, Indiana, native Renner, with the former characterizing the performance last weekend as a “lapse in consistency.”

“The product he has produced has been really consistent in terms of the location (and) his operation time,” Braun said. “A couple punts that he’d like to have back, but full faith in what he’s able to do not only as a punter in terms of his location, but also just being a weapon of really discouraging any form of pressure with the operation time he gets the ball out with.”

Renner did rebound against the Blue Devils after the two kicks, averaging 40.3 yards over his last three punts — momentum which he’ll look to carry into Saturday’s prime time contest.

3. First game with all undergraduate students on campus

With the University’s 2023-24 academic year kicking off on Tuesday, NU will host its first home game on Saturday with a — likely — full student section. First-year students will also be participating in the “Wildcat Dash” before the game, an annual tradition where the latest class of Wildcats dart across the field prior to kickoff.

Following the loss in Durham, Braun said “it’s awesome” to have students back in Evanston and packing the stands at Ryan Field in order to create a tough atmosphere for opponents.

“That’s why you come to Northwestern,” Braun said. “It’s a world-class institution and then as a student, you get an opportunity to experience Big Ten athletics. We can’t wait for ‘em to show up in big time numbers on Saturday night and the rest of the student body as well. We hope and desire and intend to make sure that we’re giving that student body a ton of things to get behind and cheer for the ‘Cats.”

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Twitter: @CervantesPAlex

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