Bowl-Eligible Gophers Sit Atop B1G West After Dominating Wildcats

Photo: Quinn Harris – USA TODAY Sports

Saturday was a big day for Big Ten football. There were matchups all over the conference that were supposed to help determine the contenders from pretenders in both divisions. But by the time the Northwestern Wildcats kicked off to the Minnesota Gophers at about 2:45 PM in Evanston, the #9 Hawkeyes had already lost to the Badgers and #6 Michigan fell to #8 Michigan State.

Both results from those morning contests helped to swing the doors wide open in the East and West races. That was good news for Minnesota, who thanks to Iowa’s loss, were gifted a chance to take sole position of first place in the the West.

Suddenly, a maroon and gold win at Ryan Field would mean more than bowl eligibility..

Taking care of business

The Minnesota Gophers have played down to their competition throughout the PJ Fleck era and you don’t have to look any further than week 4 of this season, when they somehow found a way to lose to FCS Bowling Green at Huntington Bank Stadium. That wasn’t going to happen this weekend, though.

While the offense failed to punch the football into the endzone during their first two drives, instead settling for two field goals inside the Northwestern 10-yard-line, the defense picked up their slack, returning a fumble for a touchdown in the first quarter and giving up just 14 points on the day.

The Wildcats would score seven of those points early in the 2nd quarter to make the score 13-7 but that was as close as they’d get to catching the Gophers. Their last seven points weren’t scored until 6:37 remained in the game.

Tanner Morgan completed some big passes when asked, but mostly handed the ball to freshmen running backs Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving. He’d watched them tear the home defense apart all evening long.

  • (FR) Mar’Keise Irving: 19 CAR | 110 YDS | 2 TD | 5.8 AVG
  • (RSFR) Ky Thomas: 21 CAR | 106 YDS | 5.0 AVG

Another MN running back bites the dust

Redshirt Senior running back, Bryce Williams, got the start at running back next to Tanner Morgan but he left the game on a cart after being injured on a nice catch and run in the 1st half. If his injury keeps him off the field for any period of time, Minnesota will have just two running backs left on roster.

Even in the 4th quarter of this win, I was worried about giving any more carries to Irving or Thomas. Losing another running back could derail what the Minnesota Gophers are building in 2021. Fleck shared my concern, entering linebacker Derik LeCaptain as the emergency running back during the last offensive drive.

In his only carry, he broke about three tackles and ran for a touchdown. Incredible.

Kings of the West (for now)

The final score of Saturday’s blowout was 41-14, in favor of the Gophers. It was their second-greatest margin of victory on the season, behind the 30-0 shutout of Colorado in week 3. We knew the Gophers had a good chance of taking the West reigns after today but they still had to go out and prove it on the field. They did.

Beating the shit out of the Northwestern Wildcats doesn’t prove anything but PJ Fleck and Co have set themselves up for success with just four games remaining on the schedule (vs Illinois, @ Iowa, @ Indiana and vs Wisconsin).

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan