SCOUTING REPORT: GOPHERS AT NORTHWESTERN
11 a.m., Saturday, Ryan Field (Ch. 5, 100.3-FM)
A look at the Wildcats: They have an average Big Ten defense and good special teams. But the defending West Division champions are winless in the league this year, and there’s no mystery about why: Northwestern has the worst passing game in the nation. They gain 4.3 yards per pass attempt, dead last among the 130 FBS teams and almost a full yard less than No. 129 UMass, and just 125.4 yards per game, ranking 125th, ahead of only teams that rarely pass. That’s why the Wildcats have scored just 63 points in their seven Big Ten games thus far — once going three games without a touchdown — compared to the Gophers’ 256. Senior quarterback TJ Green suffered a foot injury in the 2019 opener that required season-ending surgery, and understudy Hunter Johnson, a transfer from Clemson, was disappointing (one touchdown, four interceptions, a 47.2 completion rate) in his place before getting hurt. Third-stringer Aidan Smith, a junior who is expected to start Saturday, has thrown nine interceptions and only three touchdowns.
Who to watch: Northwestern tailback Evan Hull
Maple Grove High’s career rushing leader, whose 1,915 yards in 2018 led all Twin Cities prep players, has mostly watched from the sideline during his freshman season, carrying the ball only eight times through the first nine games. But with two other backs injured last Saturday, Hull was given his first career start, and delivered one of the best single-game rushing performances in Northwestern football history. Hull gained 224 yards and scored four touchdowns, three of them on runs of 30 yards or more. He’s the first Wildcats running back to score four touchdowns since Tyrell Sutton in 2005, and the first Big Ten player with 220 or more yards and four touchdowns since Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott in the 2015 national championship game. “I put a lot of work into this,” the Minnesotan told reporters afterward, “so to have this happen for me was a very good feeling.”
From the coach: Pat Fitzgerald
Northwestern’s eight losses tie the most Fitzgerald’s Wildcats have ever suffered during the coach’s 14 seasons in Evanston; he went 4-8 as a 35-year-old rookie coach in 2006, and has had just three losing years since. Coming off an 8-1 Big Ten season a year ago, this year’s crash has been unexpected. With an offense that has completed only four touchdown passes all year, Fitzgerald uncharacteristically blasted his quarterbacks this week. “We can’t have quarterback play the way it is now and expect to win games consistently. It goes to preparation, film study, understanding the ins and outs of the offense. Where to go with the ball and where not to,” Fitzgerald said at his weekly news conference. “It’s painfully obvious. Those are all great kids, but they were not prepared for what it takes to be the starting quarterback, and it shows. It’s pretty obvious that some of our guys did not do the things they needed to do to prepare for the season.”