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Gophers without top receiver Tyler Johnson on rainy, windy day at Northwestern

Good morning from a rainy, windy and chilly Ryan Field, where the Gophers will battle Northwestern in an 11 a.m. game. Temperatures are expected to be around 40, with rain continuing and a north wind of 20 to 30 miles per hour, with gusts up to 40.

Gophers sophomore Tyler Johnson, the team’s leading receiver, is not among the dressed receivers in pregame drills. KSTP and GopherIllustrated reported that Johnson broke his left wrist during last week’s game against Nebraska and will miss the final two games of the regular season.

Johnson, a former Minneapolis North standout, leads the Gophers with 35 receptions for 677 yards and seven touchdowns. His 19.3 yards per reception leads the Big Ten and ranks 17th nationally. He has three 100-yard receiving games this season, and his 67.7 receiving yards per game ranks fifth in the Big Ten.

With Johnson out, the Gophers could rely on redshirt freshman Phillip Howard, the team’s third-leading receiver with 11 catches for 132 yards, along with senior Eric Carter, redshirt freshman Mark Williams and junior Rashad Still, who is listed as Johnson’s backup. Still was lined up with the first team in pregame drills, as was redshirt freshman Drew Hmielewski.

Line play leads Northwestern's five-game surge into game vs. Gophers

Each week, a reporter covering the Gophers’ opponent will be my guest to break down his or her team. This week, it’s Caleb Friedman of InsideNU. He takes a look at Northwestern and Saturday’s game.

Here’s the Q&A with Caleb Friedman:

Q: Northwestern was 2-3 after back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. What has been the key to the Wildcats’ surge?

A: Northwestern has improved significantly in the trenches in recent weeks. The offensive line was abysmal early in the season, particularly in the losses against Duke, Wisconsin and Penn State, but that unit has eliminated mental mistakes and played much better during the team’s current five-game winning streak. On the defensive side, Northwestern has stopped the run (more on that later) and rushed the passer more effectively. Defensive ends Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller have become much more active as the season has gone along.

Q: Northwestern beat Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska in overtime in consecutive weeks. How much confidence has the team gained from that stretch?

A: The string of three straight overtime games was huge in the context of Northwestern’s season. Iowa is always a huge game for Pat Fitzgerald & Co., so beating the Hawkeyes after two demoralizing losses got the team back on track. A triple-OT win over a top-25 Spartans team showcased the growth of the NU defense over the course of the season, and was an emotional, propelling win. Northwestern has its swagger back, and it’s playing good football at the moment.

Q: What has been the biggest factor in the Wildcats allowing only 109.6 rushing yards per game, second fewest in the Big Ten?

A: The NU linebackers have been awesome this season. Redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher has emerged as one of the conference’s best middle linebackers, and Nate Hall has been all over the field at as well. Fisher isn’t the fastest player, but he has great instincts and doesn’t miss many tackles; he’s had two 17-tackle games this season. The defensive line has opened up gaps and occupied blockers for the linebackers to attack the line of scrimmage, and the front seven hasn’t conceded much on the ground as a result. 

Q: Where do you see Northwestern ending up in bowl season, and why?

A: It’s hard to pinpoint which bowl Northwestern will go to, and some of that will depend on whether a Big Ten team goes to the College Football Playoff, but there are a few options. The Wildcats played in the Pinstripe Bowl last season, so that’s off the table. The most likely options, then, are the Foster Farms Bowl, the Music City Bowl or the TaxSlayer Bowl, though the ultimate outcome is dependent on many different factors.

Q: What is your prediction for Saturday’s final score, and how did you arrive there?

A: I’ll take Northwestern, by a score of 27-20. Clayton Thorson was much better throwing the ball last week against Purdue than he was against Nebraska, and he has the arm to expose the Gophers in the back end. Thorson’s ability to find receivers deep down the field will open lanes for Justin Jackson to run through, and the Wildcats’ defense will turn in another solid outing. 

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