Surging Gophers won't take struggling Northwestern lightly Saturday

Dylan Wright #16 celebrates with Brady Boyd #14 and Bryce Williams #21 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers after catching a touchdown pass against the Miami (Oh) Redhawks in the second quarter of the game at Huntington Bank Stadium on September 11, 2021 ((Photo by David Berding/Getty Images))

The University of Minnesota football team is saying all the right things ahead of Saturday’s game at Northwestern.

They’re facing a disciplined team that they have a lot of respect for, and they’re the defending division champions.

The Gophers are a completely different team than the one that had a stunning 14-10 loss to Bowling Green on Homecoming at Huntington Bank Stadium. They’ve since won three straight Big Ten games, and in consecutive weeks, shut down mobile quarterbacks Adrian Martinez and Taulia Tagovailoa. Minnesota is now tied with Iowa atop the Big Ten West at 3-1.

They head to Evanston Saturday to take on a Wildcats’ team that’s 3-4 on the season, and last in the Big Ten West at 1-3. Northwestern is 1-2 in its last three games, losing at Nebraska 56-7 on Oct. 2 and 33-7 at Michigan last week after hanging with the Wolverines for a half. But, the Wildcats have been where the Gophers want to be two out of the last three years: The Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

Northwestern was 7-2 last season to win the Big Ten West, and after going 3-9 in 2019, won the West in 2018 at 8-1. The Wildcats led Ohio State 10-6 at half in last year’s Big Ten title game before the Buckeyes pitched a 16-0 shutout in the second half.

"This is the Big Ten West champs and they’re going to be the Big Ten West champs until somebody in 2021 dethrones them in December," Gophers coach PJ Fleck said Monday. "Pat Fitzgerald has been a staple in the Big Ten. He’s a tremendous coach, a tremendous person and gets the most out of his teams. They execute at a high level, and we’ve got to be at our best come Saturday."

On paper, it’s a game the Gophers can and should win if they play like the team that’s won three straight in the Big Ten. Minnesota ran for 326 yards, and four players had rushing touchdowns in last Saturday’s 34-16 win over Maryland.

More impressively, the Gophers’ defense limited Maryland to 268 total yards and just one offensive touchdown until late in regulation. In 2020, the Terrapins piled up 675 total yards and 45 points. The Gophers have the No. 5-ranked rushing defense in the nation, and the task Saturday will be containing Evan Hull.

The Maple Grove native leads the Wildcats with 675 yards rushing and five touchdowns on the season. Hull had six carries for 81 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown run against Michigan last week.

They’ve put up just 14 points in their last two Big Ten losses, but the Gophers aren’t taking anything lightly. Not after losing in the non-conference to Bowling Green.

"They’re the 2020 Big Ten West champs, so that’s where we’re at. They play hard, they’re disciplined and if we want to get to that spot, we have to ultimately beat the Big Ten West champs. That’s where we’re at, that’s how we view them," defensive end Thomas Rush said.

The Gophers will likely continue the ground-and-pound approach in the run game. Northwestern is last in the Big Ten in rushing defense, giving up 218 yards per game. Minnesota ran the ball 56 times against Maryland, and is fourth in the Big Ten at 210 yards per game.

Again, the Gophers aren’t taking anything lightly against the Wildcats, because they have the Big Ten West hardware.

"Big Ten West champions for like the past two years, a lot of respect for those guys. They play hard every play, nothing but respect for them," receiver Chris Autman-Bell said.

Fleck’s one game championship season mantra is certainly in play this week, as it is for every game. The Gophers are favored at Northwestern, while Big Ten West foes Wisconsin and Iowa do battle Saturday with a game that has division implications for both teams. Minnesota can’t look ahead, with Iowa on the schedule Nov. 13. 

The Gophers have Illinois after Northwestern, and the division race doesn’t matter if Minnesota doesn’t handle its business the next two Saturdays.

"We have a lot of guys who have played a lot of football for us that understand exactly what it means and what it takes to go into that 1-0 season, but just because you think that way doesn’t guarantee you anything," Fleck said. "You’ve got to go earn it because the other team is getting coached and the other team gets scholarships and they want to win just as bad."