The Wildcats (2-8, 0-7 Big Ten) are enduring their first losing campaign since 2014 and are looking to end the year on a positive note. Meanwhile, the Gophers (9-1, 6-1) are in the midst of their best season during head coach P.J. Fleck's tenure, as a victory on Saturday will give them their first 10-win season since 2003. It also will bring Minnesota a step closer to winning the Big Ten West and at least keep the team in the conversation for a College Football Playoff berth. The Gophers are currently 10th in the playoff rankings but seem to be a long shot to finish in the top four following last week's tough loss to Iowa.
Meanwhile, Northwestern already knows it won't be going to a bowl game, but the Wildcats still have an opportunity to play spoiler. An upset on Saturday would potentially make next week's Wisconsin-Minnesota matchup a de facto divisional championship game. Northwestern is coming off of a 45-6 win over lowly UMass, which snapped their seven-game losing streak. The Wildcats also have beaten the Gophers the past two meetings, but making it three in a row seems like a tall task given how each team has fared up to this point.
Minnesota at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 23 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Minnesota -13.5
When Minnesota Has the Ball
The Gophers could be without starting quarterback Tanner Morgan on Saturday. Morgan left last week's loss to Iowa on Minnesota's final possession after taking back-to-back sacks. He is currently in the concussion protocol and his status for this game is uncertain. Cole Kramer came in and threw the final two passes of the game — both were incomplete — and could be called upon again this week. Also on the roster is freshman Jacob Clark. Neither has a ton of experience with a combined 1-of-3 passing this year for 39 yards.
The safe bet for Minnesota would be to let either Kramer or Clark —if not both — to get the nod under center and let Morgan (68.1 completion percentage, 2,468 passing yards, 22 touchdowns) recover for another week. Head coach P.J. Fleck surely would much rather have a fully healthy Morgan against Wisconsin, which is a much more important game. Clark and Kramer can be eased into action by relying on their effective rushing attack. Running backs Rodney Smith (986 yards, 5.3 yards per attempt, 8 TDs), Mohamed Ibrahim (349, 4.6 ypc, 6), and Shannon Brooks (342, 5.8 ypc, TD) are more than capable of handling a Northwestern defense that ranks ninth in the Big Ten in run defense (141.7 ypg) and has allowed 12 rushing scores.
You can, however, still expect wide receivers Rashod Bateman (44 catches, 945 yards, 7 TDs) and Tyler Johnson (59, 900, 9) to get a few balls thrown their way. Northwestern ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total defense (344.5 ypg) and eighth in scoring defense (23.5 ppg).
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Starting quarterback Hunter Johnson has not seen the field since he was injured at Indiana three weeks ago. Aidan Smith has been under center since then, and he's seen quite a bit of action throughout the year, as Johnson has dealt with various injuries. But in just the last two games alone, Smith has only completed 26-of-44 passes for 260 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions. Unfortunately, Smith is also listed on the Wildcats injury report this week with an unspecified ailment so this is a big question mark for the Wildcats heading into this game.
The ground is where Northwestern has had the most success this season. They average 165.5 rushing yards per game and a little over four yards per carry.
Drake Anderson and Evan Hull have combined for 748 of NU's 1,655 rushing yards this season and seven of their 12 rushing touchdowns. That helps make up for the fact that the Wildcats are dead last in the Big Ten in terms of passing offense (125.4) and average pass yards per game (4.3). The Gophers' defense will be licking their chops as they hope to add to Northwestern's offensive woes. Minnesota ranks fifth in the conference in total defense (307.8 ypg) while posting 23 sacks and 15 takeaways.
Northwestern has won three of the last four meetings with Minnesota, but this year's Northwestern team has flaws and issues on both sides of the ball. Injuries, inconsistency, and mistakes have plagued the Wildcats. The offense just hasn't been able to get into a rhythm, the defense has struggled to make stops, and they haven't recovered from last year's talent losses. The Golden Gophers will lean on their ground game and beat the Wildcats for the first time since 2016.
Prediction: Minnesota 30, Northwestern 14
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.