Notebook: Minnesota vs. Northwestern

A win against Northwestern would mean a bowl game for the first time in the P.J. Fleck era.

by Paul Hodowanic

The Gophers shocked the Boilermakers of Purdue last week with a win, and their season storyline could change even more this weekend against Northwestern at home.

Secondary help coming from an unexpected source

The secondary has been dealing with depth issues all season: Antoine Winfield Jr. was lost for the season after just one Big Ten game, Antonio Shenault has missed three games and various other players have been banged up throughout the year.  

Head coach P.J. Fleck took a hard look at his roster and found the help he needed in wide receiver Phillip Howard. Howard has been stuck behind a talented group of wideouts all season, waiting for his chance if his number got called. The coaches appreciate Howard’s speed, athleticism and feet — believing those traits will make the transition to defense easier.

Fleck sat down with Howard one-on-one to propose the shift. Howard agreed in the hopes that it would help the team. 

“He’s been biting at the bit to get in there, but the other [wide receivers] are still ahead of him right now. We obviously have an issue at defensive back, and if we have one or two guys that don’t make it to Saturday, Phillip Howard could start at corner,” said Fleck. “But the position change will be for the next 11 days, and then we’ll reevaluate it.”

The defense hopes to build on last week

For much of the season, the offense carried the load for a struggling defense. The frustration from coaches and players was evident, and it culminated in a switch at defensive coordinator.

In the first week since the shift, the defense shined against Purdue behind a new play caller in Joe Rossi and with the play of senior linebacker Blake Cashman.

“I thought Blake Cashman was outstanding. I thought he played one of his best games of his career that I’ve been here,” said Fleck. “I thought Joe Rossi, the defensive staff, did a great job of handling a lot of adversity coming up with a great game plan, simple, sound, fast, and they played that way.” 

The defense held Purdue to 10 points and didn’t allow a third down conversion, as Purdue when 0-12 in that category. 

“It was a surprise; they are a really good team,” said Rossi. “Let’s not bank on [0-12] every week because I’ll tell you those don’t happen very often. “As the game went on, we got a feel that our guys had some confidence … and that’s what led to the success.”

The Gophers will hope to replicate that success as much as possible against the 12th ranked scoring offense in the Big Ten, Northwestern. 

The offensive line is coming together

Last week, the offensive line had one of its best showings all year. They controlled Purdue on the ground, and one play in particular showed Fleck and his staff the group is turning a corner. 

“I think it’s play 36. If you’re keeping track at home: it’s a 2-yard gain and then we ended up getting 12,” said Fleck. “That’s what I love to see because that’s the how, that’s the heart, that’s the spirit, that’s your unconquerable will. … They’re not there yet, but they’re getting the culture. They’re understanding how to go win football games, how to play the right way.”

Running backs Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams combined for 224 yards rushing and 8.2 yards per carry and one touchdown. Seth Green added another touchdown and has continued to make plays in the wildcat formation. 

The glue to the offensive line all season has been senior center Jared Weyler, who has help along the line who has started three underclassmen most of the season. 

“I [would] hate to see where we would be if we didn’t have him honestly,” said offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarocca. “He’s been invaluable to us, and what a leader, what a role model for the whole offense.”