Gophers at Northwestern
- Kickoff: 6:30 p.m., Saturday
- Where: Ryan Field
- TV/Radio: BTN, 100.3-FM
- Line: Gophers by 11½
Coming off a 31-13 loss at North Carolina, the Gophers venture to Evanston, Ill., to face Northwestern in their second Big Ten game of the season. Minnesota (2-1, 1-0 Big Ten) will try to stretch their winning streak over the Wildcats (1-2, 0-1) to four games.
Three big story lines
Will the Gophers' passing game improve? Athan Kaliakmanis closed the 2022 season on a strong note for the Gophers, leading a comeback victory over Wisconsin and playing well in the Pinstripe Bowl before spraining an ankle. So far this season, he's hitting on only 51.1% of his passes and has one TD pass against three interceptions. His improvement is the key to the season.
Will Darius Taylor match Laurence Maroney? In 2003, Gophers running back Laurence Maroney strung together three consecutive 100-yard rushing games as a true freshman. Darius Taylor, who rushed for 193 yards against Eastern Michigan and 138 against North Carolina, will try to match Maroney's feat. His 111.3 rushing yards per game rank second in the Big Ten.
Will the Gophers execute in the red zone? Through three games, the Gophers have scored four touchdowns, seven field goals and one safety. While their overall scoring performance in the red zone (inside the opponent's 20-yard line) ranks eighth in the conference at 90% (9-for-10), they are last in touchdown percentage at 40%. That must improve, or more losses will follow.
Two key matchups
Gophers cornerbacks vs. Northwestern WR A.J. Henning
Justin Walley and Tre'Von Jones will face a challenge in Henning, a transfer from Michigan who averages 5.9 yards per carry, ranks third on the team in receiving yards and was a second-team All-Big Ten return specialist last year. "He's one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten,'' Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.
Gophers guards vs. Northwestern LB Bryce Gallagher
The rotating trio of Martes Lewis, Tyler Cooper and true freshman Greg Johnson are likely to run into Gallagher, a senior who leads the Big Ten with 37 tackles. Gallagher, 6-2 and 235 pounds, made a career-high 19 tackles in the season opener against Rutgers.
One stat that matters
Third-down conversion percentage (20-for-38) for opposing offenses against the Gophers defense. That ranks last in the Big Ten.
The Gophers will win if … their defense gets off the field on third down, their running game behind Taylor continues to excel and they avoid turnovers. Getting the win is the primary focus, but developing the passing game to the point that it's an asset should be Task 1A on the to-do list.
The Wildcats will win if … they put doubt in the Gophers' mind by taking an early lead, they control the ball with RB Cam Porter, they win the turnover battle and they get efficient play from QB Ben Bryant, a Cincinnati transfer who started 11 games for the Bearcats last season.
The Gophers have the edge in athletic ability throughout their roster, and the Wildcats still are picking up the pieces after longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired amid allegations of hazing in the program. Minnesota can be vulnerable if it continues to settle for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. Fleck has the option of turning the game over to a solid running game, but he knows the passing game must gain confidence. Expect Kaliakmanis to take his shots and the deep receiving corps to make a difference against the Wildcats.
My expectation: The Gophers improve on offense, get a strong defensive effort and pull away in the second half. Gophers 24, Northwestern 10