Questions from the other side: The Daily Northwestern’s Ben Pope

Northwestern clinched the Big Ten western division last week after beating then No. 21 Iowa.

Jack Warrick

For this weekly column, the Daily interviews a journalist with knowledge on the Gophers’ next opponent. We interviewed The Daily Northwestern’s Ben Pope to gain insight on this week’s game against Northwestern. Pope is a football and men’s basketball reporter for the Daily Northwestern.

What changed since the beginning of the season with a 1-3 start, to now winning the last five of six and having a No. 24 ranking?

“Northwestern has really started slowly almost every year lately. … In terms of on-the-field performance, the offensive line was really beat up early in the season with a lot of injuries, and they’ve gotten more healthy and more consistent lately. … So if you look there, for a few weeks Northwestern really wasn’t able to do anything on the ground. They were averaging, like, 20 yards a game rushing. 

But Isaiah Bowser — who’s a true freshman [and] wasn’t really a top recruit — has really emerged. He has over 100 yards each of the last four weeks. He’s a power back who runs between the tackles mostly. He isn’t the fastest guy but has a lot of muscle and is hard to bring down. [He] can consistently get yards every time he gets the ball. That really fits into Northwestern’s steady sort of physical style on offense. He’s really the exact kind of running back they needed to emerge. 

So offensively, that’s really been the key. And then on defense, it’s definitely been the stronger unit this season, even when they were losing those games. The defensive line is one of the deepest in the Big Ten, and has a future NFL star in Joe Gaziano, a defensive end.”

Northwestern doesn’t have a very powerful offense, but have squeezed out close games against ranked opponents. What is the identity of this year’s team?

“For much of the early part of the season it really was more passing-oriented, but coinciding with the team’s success lately has also been a shift more to the running game that historically has been the centerpiece of Northwestern’s offense. That’s really the key to everything working. Clayton Thorson has actually kind of struggled lately. … He’s had some accuracy issues, and they’ve really relied on Bowser to get the ball moving.”

What is the basis of this defense, not much pressure from the defensive line with the lowest number of sacks in the Big Ten, but they still hold teams to manageable points. How would you describe this defense?

“The defensive philosophy is mainly, and this works especially well in the Big Ten, to stop the run on first and second down, and then play good pass defense on third down and force punts. … The run defense is top 20 in the country. … They force teams to cut to the inside, and right into the linebacking group. … You go back and look through a lot of the games recently and some great running backs from opposing teams have not done too much. They held [Wisconsin’s] Jonathan Taylor to not only under 100 yards for the first time this season, but only 46 yards. That says a lot about how good they are against the run.”

Northwestern wins this game if …

“I mean, the point spread’s only like three points, and I know Minnesota’s played well at home this year. That game last week, certainly all of us here at Northwestern were paying a lot of attention to because that was crucial for us clinching the division. … So I don’t think the Wildcats are going in there expecting to just roll over the Gophers. … So if [Thorson] can find some more space to operate and get more yards going in the passing game, that could be a big development. I know Minnesota’s a bit susceptible defensively, although it seemed like last week they took a lot of strides forward.”

Speed round:

Best offensive player?

WR Flynn Nagel

Best Defensive player?

DL Joe Gaziano

Under the radar player?

TE Cameron Green

Score Prediction?

Northwestern 24, Minnesota 21