Revitalized Northwestern heads to the Bank

Northwestern has beaten Penn State and Wisconsin in its past two games.

Jack Satzinger

Gophers fans are still buzzing about the program’s victory at Michigan last month. After all, Minnesota’s first time defeating the Wolverines since 2005 deserved some celebration.

This week’s opponent, Northwestern, did something more remarkable last weekend while the Gophers were on their couches watching a bizarre day of college football unfold.

Eleven of the nation’s 25 ranked teams lost, including Northwestern’s opponent — then-No. 17 Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin’s always a great team, so it was cool to watch them take down Wisconsin,” senior offensive lineman Tommy Olson said.

The Gophers (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) haven’t defeated the Badgers since 2003 and now face the Wildcats, who did it less than seven days ago and sit atop the Big Ten West standings after an 0-2 start to the season.

It’s hard to find a main catalyst for the Wildcats’ turnaround.

Maybe the teams Northwestern (3-2, 2-0 Big Ten) lost to — California and Northern Illinois — are better than analysts once thought. After winning just one game last season, California has scored more points per game against Power Five opponents than anyone else this year with 48.8, according to College Football Matrix.

That loss doesn’t look so bad for the Wildcats anymore.

And even after losing Jordan Lynch, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, Northern Illinois has won every game it has played this year, save a matchup with SEC powerhouse Arkansas.

Maybe the Wildcats weren’t tough enough early on. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald made his players practice in the rain after its slow start, telling reporters last month that their lack of toughness was an “embarrassment.”

Or maybe they just struggled to adapt after star running back Venric Mark transferred and leading receiver Christian Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall camp.

“I think teams sometimes early in the year for whatever reason — timing, continuity, injuries, things of that nature — sometimes you get off to a slow start until everybody comes together,” Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said. “I think the key is that you keep improving each week.”

For whatever reason, Northwestern isn’t the same team it was five weeks ago.

In its victory at Penn State, the Wildcats defense limited star quarterback Christian Hackenberg to a completion percentage below 50 percent. On top of that, Northwestern allowed only 50 rushing yards and the Nittany Lions registered just six points.

And Northwestern held Wisconsin’s offense, which may have the best running back in the country in Melvin Gordon, to just 14 points.

Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover gave Fitzgerald credit for developing Northwestern’s tough defense.

“They don’t make a lot of mistakes. I was a [graduate assistant] in ’95, ’96, when Pat Fitzgerald was a linebacker there. He’s probably one of the smartest defensive players I’ve ever been around,” Limegrover said.

Redshirt sophomore tight end Maxx Williams said Minnesota’s offense “just kind of clicked” at Michigan, finding its usual success on the ground but also getting production through the air with 167 passing yards.

 While the Gophers are rested and coming off a big victory, the Wildcats are peaking — morphing what once looked like an easy conference victory for Minnesota into a battle between the Big Ten West Division’s leaders.