It has been a winding road, but all of a sudden, the Minnesota Golden Gophers are tied for the lead in the Big Ten West heading into Saturday as they get set to travel to Evanston to take on the Northwestern Wildcats.
It's tough to fathom that Minnesota (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) is in first place after losing to Bowling Green just one month ago, but the Gophers have rattled off three straight victories, including a resounding win over Maryland last Saturday. The defense has led the resurgence, giving up just 17 points per game in that span, and currently ranks second in the conference and fifth nationally against the run.
Northwestern (3-4, 1-3) is coming off a 33-7 blowout loss at the hands of Michigan in which the Wildcats were outgained 457-233. The road to six wins and bowl eligibility won't get any easier from here on out, facing the three top contenders in the division in the next three weeks with Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin all on tap. Meanwhile, the Gophers can become bowl eligible with a road victory on Saturday.
Minnesota at Northwestern
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Minnesota -7.5
When Minnesota Has the Ball
No team in the country has dealt with more adversity at the running back position than the Gophers, who lost both Mohamed Ibrahim and Trey Potts to season-ending injuries. Yet somehow, Minnesota continues to churn out yards consistently on the ground, averaging more than five yards a carry combined in wins over Nebraska and Maryland. Last Saturday against the Terrapins, Minnesota posted a season-high 326 rushing yards utilizing a three-man committee between Ky Thomas, Bryce Williams, and Mar'Keise Irving, who each had at least 13 carries. Advantage Gophers on Saturday, facing the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten by a wide margin, as Northwestern is allowing 219 yards per game on the ground.
With the mounting injuries in the backfield, Minnesota needed more balance on offense with contributions from the passing game, and the results are mixed. Senior quarterback Tanner Morgan has completed 77.8 percent of his throws over the last two games and could have been even more efficient had it not been for multiple drops by Gopher receivers. The return of No. 1 receiver Chris Autman-Bell has helped tremendously, providing a field-stretching option on the outside as he posted just the second 100-yard receiving performance from a Minnesota wideout all year in Week 7 against Nebraska.
When Northwestern Has the Ball
Against the Wolverines, 32 percent of Northwestern's total yards came on one play via a 75-yard touchdown run from running back Evan Hull, the longest run by an NU player in 60 years. Outside of that, the Wildcats averaged just 2.43 yards per play the remainder of the game. Northwestern has also been hit by the injury bug in the backfield, with Hull filling in for starter Cam Porter who was lost for the season back in August. Production hasn't always been consistent for the sophomore running back, but Hull continues to lead the team with 637 rushing yards, averaging over six yards a carry. Rushing yards could be tough to come by on Saturday, however, against a Gopher defense that's allowed under four yards per attempt in five of the last six games.
Quarterback Ryan Hilinski started his fourth straight game but did not find the same success as the previous three, completing just 50 percent of his throws for 133 yards and an interception. It didn't help matters that Hilinski's top target, Stephon Robinson Jr., was forced to leave the game due to a lower-body injury and did not return. The Kansas transfer, who had 100 receiving yards in the prior two games leading up to the Michigan matchup, is listed as questionable for this week. Minnesota's run defense gets the headlines, but the Gopher secondary has been up to the task as well, allowing just three passing touchdowns in the last five weeks.
It's tough to go against Minnesota here given how the Gophers have played defensively for much of the season and the emerging young talents in the Gophers' backfield who have stepped up in place of the injured starters. Northwestern has not been able to fix its leaky rush defense, and the Wildcats' continued struggles to score points have plagued them all year, ranking 124th nationally in red-zone offense. The Wildcats have performed much better this year in the friendly confines of Evanston (3-1), so expect this to be a close matchup, but Minnesota appears to be hitting its stride on both sides of the football at just the right time in the season.
Prediction: Minnesota 23, Northwestern 20
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.