Minnesota vs Northwestern Preview: Gophers Must Feed Young RB1, Empower Shaken QB1

NCAA Football: Minnesota at North Carolina
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The (2-1) Minnesota Gophers are in Evanston, IL this weekend for a rare night game at Ryan Field vs the (1-2) Northwestern Wildcats. PJ Fleck’s 2023 Gophers are coming off of their first loss of the season, vs North Carolina, a battle in which quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis failed to measure up to UNC’s heisman hopeful, Drake Maye.

When and Where is Minnesota vs Northwestern?

Date/Time: Sept. 23, 2023 / 6:30 p.m. CT

Site: Evanston, IL

Stadium: Ryan Field

Surface: Natural Grass

Capacity: 47,129

Related: Minnesota Gophers football schedule 2023

Minnesota Gophers vs Northwestern Wildcats Football Facts:

Series Overall: Minnesota Leads 56-36-5

Streak: Minnesota Won 3

Series at NU: Minnesota Leads 25-21-2

Streak: Minnesota Won 2

Last Meeting: Minnesota won 31-3 in Minneapolis (11/12/22)

How to watch Minnesota vs Northwestern:

Big Ten Network

Play by Play: Lisa Byington
Analyst: Anthony Herron
Sideline Reporter: Elise Menaker

How to listen to Minnesota vs Northwestern:

KFAN | SiriusXM: Ch. 388; SXM App

Play by Play: Mike Grimm
Analyst: Darrell Thompson
Sideline Reporter: Justin Gaard

Related: Best game day recipes for Gopher football fans

Minnesota vs Northwestern Preview

But it’s time to look forward because that 31-13 nightmare is over, and the wounded Gophers land a good recovery test in week 4. Minnesota enters Friday as an 11.5 point favorite over the controversial Cats. It’s been a couple of years since Northwestern has competed for the Big Ten West title and 2023’s squad didn’t have high expectations, to begin with.

That was before the Northwestern football hazing controversy was first reported over the summer, which led to the firing of 17-year head coach and Wildcat legend, Pat Fitzgerald. Then, players got mad and wore T-shirts in support of their former head coach. The rest of Fitzgerald’s staff was kept on and assistant coach David Braun was promoted to interim head coach.

Here we are, in week 4 of the regular season, months after the scandal originally blew up news feeds across the country, and Northwestern beat writer David Gold (InsideNU – SB Nation) is still describing the vibe around the Wildcat football program as, “strange”.

“The vibe around this team can only be described as strange. After a hazing scandal led to Pat Fitzgerald’s termination. after 17 years at the helm of the program, actual football has been second to the other issues surrounding the program.”

David Gold (via interview with Ryan Burns at GopherIllustrated.com)

4 Keys to Victory

1: Feed Darius Taylor – True freshman running back, Darius Taylor has risen to the top of the Minnesota Gophers depth chart, early this season, becoming the first true freshman to rush for over 100 yards in each of this first two games since Laurence Maroney did it back in 2004.

He’s been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week in two-straight weeks and provides a combination of speed, power and athleticism that not even Mo Ibrahim had. He’s devoured 56 total carries on the season, amassing an absurd 334 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns.

The running back competition is over. Darius Taylor is the Minnesota Gophers RB1 and the only person taking carries away from him, when healthy and able, is his quarterback, Athan Kaliakmanis.

2: Athan Kaliakmanis must play better – Minnesota quarterback, Athan Kaliakmanis, had what he described as the “worst game of his career” vs UNC. He had a 37.9% completion rate (11/29) and threw threw his third interception of the young season.

Kaliakmanis asked for and took all the blame, in a somber, yet passionate postgame press conference, following the loss. Earlier this week, after a couple of days to reflect, Athan was confident and hungry in his weekly podium interview with Gopher media.

But Saturday night feels like a swing game for Athan’s football career. He’s had an incredibly slow start to his season and his performance in Chapel Hill needs to be rock bottom. The redshirt sophomore has thrown 3 interceptions to just 1 touchdown in 2023 and that TD came in week 1 vs Nebraska.

3: Fleck cannot ignore pass game: Getting Athan going has a lot to do with PJ Fleck’s offensive mindset, entering the game. As mentioned in the preview, Northwestern isn’t very good and their defensive line might be the worst position group on their roster.

Related: Michigan State Interested in PJ Fleck as Next Head Coach

Fleck could run Darius Taylor down the Wildcats’ throats for 4 quarters, to the tune of 35 carries, 250 yards and 4 touchdowns; just like he tried to do in week 2 vs Eastern Michigan when Taylor was fed 33 carries for 198 yards and a TD.

But Kaliakmanis threw the ball just 15 times in that contest, a performance that was sandwiched between 44 passes vs Nebraska (wk 1) and 29 passes vs North Carolina (wk 3). Fleck must allow OC Greg Harbaugh to stay balanced with run and pass plays on Saturday night, even knowing he doesn’t need to throw in order to win.

Getting Athan’s confidence back up must be a focus vs lesser competition the next two weeks (NW and Louisiana), before Michigan rolls into Dinkytown on October 7.

4: Get an early lead – The Wildcats are down, right now. Many players are just trying to get through this season, before moving on, others are wondering what happens next. But media members close to the program believe football is secondary for this program, right now.

That means, if the Gophers take an early lead and accelerate through the 1st half, this one should be over by halftime. Far too often, in the PJ Fleck era, however, we’ve seen superior Gopher football teams allow inferior opponents to stick around and make could-be blowouts into unneeded nail-biters.

Minnesota needs to get up early and then step on Northwestern’s throat. Do not let a dying cat breathe.

Minnesota vs Northwestern Prediction and Expectations

I expect the Gophers to run all over the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday night. What we’ll see from Athan Kaliakmanis is still TBD, both in terms of quantity and quality. Barring a turnover meltdown, I see Minnesota having their best offensive performance so far this season, a much needed confidence booster after the UNC debacle.

On defense, I expect the Fighting Joe Rossi’s to suffocate the Wildcat offense. The Gophers pride themselves on having one of the top defenses in the country. In order to get their season numbers back to that trend, they’ll need to bully Northwestern for all four quarters.

My Prediction: Minnesota 27, Northwestern 6

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

Read all of our Gopher football blogs at Minnesota Sports Fan

Mentioned in this article:

More About: