Clouds gathered above Ryan Field the past two times the Gophers darkened Northwestern’s door. The dreary weather combined with the Big Ten’s smallest stadium drawing just 30,000 fans added to Minnesota’s misery in those 2015 and 2017 losses.
Final scores: 27-0 and 39-0, respectively.
Even last November at home, the Gophers couldn’t overcome the eventual Big Ten West champion, losing 24-14, Minnesota’s last loss until last week at Iowa.
Now, all those bad memories can serve as careful warnings for a Gophers team determined not to spoil its best season in decades. Northwestern might be down this year — 2-8 overall, 0-7 in the Big Ten — but coach Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats can’t be taken lightly, especially in Evanston, Ill.
“To be a champ, you’ve got to beat the champ,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “Northwestern is still the defending Big Ten West champions, and that’s our message to our players.”
The Gophers are nearly two-touchdown favorites, but their odds could even out quickly if quarterback Tanner Morgan remains in the concussion protocol. Morgan, who holds the nation’s sixth-best passer rating, walked off the field woozy late in last week’s 23-19 loss at Iowa after back-to-back sacks crunched him.
There has been no update on his status. The answer likely won’t come until pregame warmups. The Gophers have been preparing two true freshman backups — Cole Kramer and Jacob Clark — to potentially start in Morgan’s place, with wildcat quarterback Seth Green possibly mixed in more.
That could be just the opening Northwestern’s defense needs. This has been the annual strength of Fitzgerald’s teams, with veteran defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz leading the way.
Yes, Northwestern took a 52-3 loss to Ohio State last month, but the Wildcats were competitive in losses to Wisconsin (24-15), Nebraska (13-10) and Purdue (24-22), with one constant being Hankwitz’s defense.
“To the common eye, it looks like a pretty simple defense,” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “They line up in basically one front on first and second down, and they play quarters [four defensive backs in zone coverage] or single high [with one safety back].
“But when you really study them, and you notice their little tweaks and adjustments and all those things in there. I just have a ton of respect for them. … Last year, they did some things that I thought were really brilliant.”
If Northwestern slows Minnesota’s running game, forcing an inexperienced quarterback into throwing, that could frustrate the Gophers. Northwestern ranks 39th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 23.5 points per game, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s hard to stop other teams when your own offense can’t control the clock, and the Wildcats rank 129th out of 130 FBS teams in scoring offense (14.5).
Northwestern lost senior quarterback TJ Green to a foot injury in Week 1. Hunter Johnson, once a five-star recruit for Clemson, stepped in with a disappointing 47.2 completion percentage. Aidan Smith has been the starter of late, but Northwestern’s injury report lists him as doubtful for this game. So it could be fourth-stringer Andrew Marty against the Gophers.
Add it up, and this is the definition of a “trap game” for Minnesota. The Gophers are coming off two games in front of electrifying crowds — a home triumph against Penn State and the loss at Iowa. Next week, Minnesota will play Wisconsin at home in a game expected to decide the Big Ten West.
But first come the Wildcats.
Just last week, in a 45-6 rout of lowly UMass, Northwestern garnered its smallest audience in four years, with just 29,447 in announced attendance at the 47,000-seat stadium.
Fleck, though, is big on situational preparedness. When the Gophers were playing a late West Coast game at steamy Fresno State, he had players ready themselves for what would feel like a 9 p.m. local time kick, emphasizing hydration and bumping up the heat in the indoor facility during practices.
Ahead of a snowy home game against Nebraska, he made his quarterback and receivers dunk their hands in ice buckets and play with frozen footballs. For Iowa, he played the Hawkeyes fans’ cheers and the marching band’s songs on blast.
Northwestern was the same idea. Just enacted a bit differently.
“When we’re practicing, we’ll just have, like, some softer or lighter sounds going around,” receiver Demetrius Douglas said. “And you really, just, you hear your coaches talking. You’re able to really communicate with each other on the field.”
The team has also anticipated Ryan Field’s natural grass, which differs from the vast majority of football stadiums using artificial turf. Longer grass can slow some offensive opponents, but the Gophers are planning for that as well.
“We’ll go out, run a couple routes or break points or whatnot on the grass field, just to get a little accustomed to it,” Douglas said of the wideouts.
The weather.com forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies, with light south winds and temperatures from 38-42 during the game. Not bad for November.
And there is one bonus caveat. If Minnesota wins this 11 a.m., game, and Wisconsin loses its 3 p.m., game to Purdue, the Gophers would clinch the Big Ten West. That could trigger a massive party in Dinkytown when the team charter arrives home Saturday evening.
“It’s crazy. We’re just so excited. Everyone’s just pumped up, and everyone wants to get back to work,” Douglas said of the team’s vibe. “Regardless of what happened yesterday or last week or last month, we’re not focused on that.”