Lowes Line


Minnesota Preview and Prediction

By Joel Kanvik

ROSEMONT, Ill. - Big Ten Commissioner James Delaney announced that the Northwestern University football team has been relegated down from the Big Ten, effective with the 2020 football season.  Mr. Delaney remarked, "We have a tremendous respect for Northwestern University and its football program, and have enjoyed Northwestern's membership in the Big Ten since the inception of the conference in 1895.  However, based on the results from the 2019 football season, particularly Northwestern's results during Big Ten conference play, and the fact that Northwestern trailed the University of Massachusetts for the first quarter during their recent intercollegiate contest, we determined that it was best for the Big Ten and for Northwestern to relegate Northwestern to a lower league until they can raise their level of play to what we would consider to be Big Ten standards."  Mr. Delaney went on to comment that he wished Northwestern the best of luck as it played in its new conference, the Central Suburban (South) conference of the Illinois High School Association.

"Obviously, we're tremendously disappointed as a program," responded head coach Pat Fitzgerald.  "We really killed it on the practice field this season, but our execution was lacking on Saturdays.  I feel badly for our young men, especially the season after winning the Big Ten West.  We are currently working to line up games with our new conference rivals, like New Trier, Glenbrook South, and Evanston Township.  I'm excited to see how Mick McCall's offense will match up against less-then-Big-Ten caliber defenses.  Our goal will be to approach every week and try to go 1-0."

Mr. Delaney further remarked that this was the first time that the Big Ten had considered a team for relegation in its 120+ year history.  "Certainly the Northwestern teams of the late 70s and early 80s, which set a then-NCAA record for consecutive losses, and the pathetic Francis Peay-era teams might have been considered at the time, but it wasn't until we were forced to watch the touchdown-less month of October and the first quarter last Saturday that we realized how desperately Northwestern needed to be relegated in order to preserve the Big Ten's reputation for superior intercollegiate football competition."

About the Big Ten Conference
The Big Ten Conference is an association of world-class universities whose member institutions share a common mission of research, graduate, professional and undergraduate teaching and public service. Founded in 1896, the Big Ten has sustained a comprehensive set of shared practices and policies that enforce the priority of academics in the lives of students competing in intercollegiate athletics and emphasize the values of integrity, fairness and competitiveness. The broad-based programs of the 14 Big Ten institutions will provide over $200 million in direct financial support to more than 9,800 students for more than 11,000 participation opportunities on 350 teams in 42 different sports. The Big Ten sponsors 28 official conference sports, 14 for men and 14 for women, including the addition of men’s ice hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse since 2013. For more information, visit www.bigten.org

Matchup: #10 Minnesota Golden Gophers (9-1, 6-1), at Northwestern Wildcats (2-8, 0-7)
Date: Saturday, November 23, 2019,11:00 AM CST
Line: Minnesota (-13.5)
         Over/Under 39.5


The crazy thing is that press release is believable, even if for just a second.  Yes, we are coming off a game in which we routed UMass 45-6 but, by any reasonable standard, Northwestern has grossly underperformed this season.  And I'm not talking about undercutting our expectations elevated by a Big Ten West crown or 3 straight bowl wins.  I'm talking about fielding a team that's at least competitive with Big Ten competition.  A review of this season's results depicts a completely lost season.  The lone two victories are non-conference, against a team that is now 2-8 (UNLV) and one that is 1-10 (UMass); and neither of those two team play in a Power 5 conference.  For a scary 15 minutes Saturday, Northwestern played so poorly that it surrendered 2 interceptions to the worst defense in Division I-A, and trailed 3-0.  2019 has been a giant step off a cliff for the NU football program.

As demonstrated in a Line earlier this season, Northwestern historically has experienced ebbs and flows in program success.  Even as the program ascended to greater heights, once again making the Rose Bowl under Gary Barnett, and 9 bowls in the last 10 years under Fitz, the team would regress for one sub-.500 rebuilding year.  But as noted in that previous Line, those lows have been higher than ever before, almost convincing the casual observer that Fitz and Northwestern had built a consistent, winning program.  And then 2019 happened.  Good team, good programs, may stumble for a season, but they do not suffer a complete collapse of the type the Purple Faithful have witnessed this season.

Yes, we've gone through some changes.  We've played 5 quarterbacks during the course of the season, losing 2 to injuries and/or family matters (we also might have lost a third, as Aidan Smith is doubtful to play Saturday, meaning Andrew Marty will be NU's 4th starting quarterback for 2019).  We've lost our best running back at times, as well as our best receiver.  And we lost a lot to graduation.  But other teams, other successful programs, find a way to restock every season and to overcome injuries, and keep winning.  Look at Clemson.  Alabama.  Or, closer to home, Ohio State.  I think a lot of Northwestern fans thought we were well on our way to joining those teams, not in terms of perennial invitations to the college football playoff, but at least in terms of consistently competitive football teams.  And 2019 has smashed the Purple back to reality in the most painful way possible.  We aren't a great program.  We might not even be a good program, yet.

This season, it has become almost trite to complain about the poor offensive playcalling and scheming that characterizes the Northwestern offense.  McCall's offense is unimaginative and ineffective.  It is clear that whatever McCall is doing is not putting the Wildcat offense in a position to succeed.  An entire month without scoring a touchdown is proof of that.

But it's important to note that McCall is also the quarterbacks coach, and the following stats make the case for his departure extremely compelling:  in the 10 games (before UMass), NU has not had a passer exceed 200 yards in a game, and in 5 of those games, i.e., HALF, the NU quarterback threw for less than 100 yards!  Against UMass, the worst defense in Division I-A, we threw for a whopping 76 yards!  Granted, Evan Hull ripped off 220 on the ground, but we couldn't even manage 100 yards passing?!  And, get this:  Aidan Smith completed all 7 of his passes (in 13 attempts...BARELY over 50%) to ONE receiver!  Clearly the quarterbacks aren't ready to play, week in and week out, and that responsibility rests solely at McCall's feet.

While Fitz might acknowledge that there are 40,000 people out there that can call plays, it's time he acknowledge that one of those 40,000 isn't sitting in the coaching booth.  Quite simply, it's time for Fitz to man up and act like a head coach, and gently nudge Mr. McCall out the door.  Thank him for his years at Northwestern, give him a gold watch, whatever.  But any offensive success Northwestern has had this season really has been in spite of McCall, not because of him.  We need imagination behind our offense, like when Randy Walker helped invent an offense that promptly scared the crap out of any time coming to Evanston.  And, I might add, inspired A LOT of copycats and disciples.  Sad that Northwestern chose to abandon it.

If Fitz doesn't do what a head coach is supposed to do, those 40,000 people won't be calling plays, they'll switch to every variation of #FireMcCall.  We'll be subjected to more McCall impeachment hearings led to Rep. Cornbottom with special guest appearances by Butt-head.  While Fitz may not care about or read social media, more than likely his players do.  With so much negative noise about McCall and the NU offense every week, isn't it possible that his players, especially those on offense, are bringing all of that negativity with them to work every film session, practice, and game?  Time to change the narrative, Fitz.  For the good of the program.  Your responsibility to your players trumps any friendship or kinship you might feel for Mr. McCall.

A final word about the UMass game.  Yes, it was fun to watch Northwestern be as successful as they were on both sides of the ball, assuming you were doing something else for the first 15 minutes.  Freshman Evan Hull had a great day running with the ball, gaining 220 yards on 24 carries (9.2/carry) and scoring 4 touchdowns.  The NU defense held the lowly Minutemen to but 2 field goals.  But the offense looked terrible in the first quarter particularly, with Aidan Smith managing to complete 5 passes, but two of them were to UMass.  NU did regroup and outplayed UMass the rest of the way, outscoring UMass 45-3.  It's nothing to be proud of, however, as UMass has been a season-long denizen of ESPN's "Bottom 10" list, where it's known as "UMess".  Before we get to feeling too happy, we need to remember NU has appeared on that list, too.

The reality is that the results against UMass are stats similar to what the NU squad would have put up had they really been relegated to the Central Suburban (North) conference.  In other words, not really anything to crow about.  About the best we can hope for, my gentle Purple Patriots, is that it creates some momentum which our warriors in purple...or grey...or black...are able to carry into this week's game against...

Minnesota.  In past Lines written about the Minnesota Golden Gophers game, I used every synonym I could think of for "golden" and "gopher."  Another Line staffer, who has far better writing chops than I, artfully wove in about every great Caddyshack quote there is; a true literary classic.  Last year, I managed to compare Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck's "row the boat" philosophy to the Edmund Fitzgerald.  But, dear readers, here's where past art and current disaster cross over.  For this year's game between Northwestern and Minnesota is going to look a lot more like this:

I think you know who is who, but just in case, P.J. is Al Czervik and he's rowing his yacht right over our little dinghy.  Problem is, unlike the fisherman with the dinner plate-sized eyes, we aren't going to be able to swim out of the way.

Minnesota is for real this season.  They come into Ryan Field licking their wounds a bit from suffering their first defeat of the season at the hands of the Iowa Hawkeyes. Their season started off slowly against what now seem like inferior opponents but, in contract to years past, they actually found a way to win those games (clearly, these are not Glen Mason's Gophers). When they got into the Big Ten season, their momentum seemed to snowball, and they started beating the teams they should beat, but also beating them handily (and not barely, like NU is wont to do).  They faced up to a #4 ranked Penn State team and held their own, forcing Penn State into numerous mistakes before salting away the victory with an interception in the end zone.  Iowa City is a tough place to play, and maybe the Gophers were starting to believe the hype, resulting in their first loss against an inspired Iowa team.  But we know Iowa is a quality program; that same Hawkeye team that came into Evanston and shut out the Wildcats, 20-0. 

If he clears the concussion protocol by game time, Minnesota will be led by sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan (if he doesn't, then Minnesota will line up one of two true freshman under center).  Morgan completes more than 2/3 of his passes and, against Penn State, he was an astonishing 18 for 20.  On the season, he has 21 touchdown passes against only 4 interceptions.  What has made the biggest difference in Minnesota's success has been its running game.  Rodney Smith leads Minnesota's rushing attack, accumulating 940 yards this season at a 5.5 yard-per-carry clip, and he has found the end zone 7 times. Spelling him is Mohammed Ibrahim, and Ibrahim has struck paydirt another 6 times.  Minnesota features 3 excellent receivers, each with more than 20 catches on the season.  Look for Rashod Batemen to get loose in the Wildcat secondary, with his gaudy 22.6 yard-per-catch average.  It could get ugly, often.  The only Achilles heel for the Minnesota passing offense is that it is prone to give up sacks.

On defense, the Gophers are led by Antoine Winfield, Jr.  Junior's dad had a long and successful NFL career as a defensive back, with many of his best years playing down the street at the (now demolished, thank God) Metrodome.  And Junior is proving himself to be a chip off the old block, having snagged a nation-leading 7 interceptions so far in 2019.  Given NU's quarterbacks' propensity for throwing to the team in the wrong jerseys, this does not bode well.

At this point in the season, Minnesota is doing too many things right, and NU too many wrong, for this Line staffer to think there's any hope that NU will be able to torpedo the Gophers' season.  The most interesting matchup will be NU's run defense, arguably the best phase of NU's game, against the Gophers' potent rushing attack.  However, Morgan should be able to find holes in the NU secondary, and that will spell trouble for NU's changes at keeping the game close.  Once the Gophers start stretching the field with passes, NU's rushing defense will weaken as well.  On the other side of the ball, every time an NU quarterback drops back, we'll have to hold our collective breath that the ball won't end up in Winfield's hands.  Unless somehow Evan Hull manages a repeat performance, but this time against a real defense (and all signs point to that not happening), we'll be forced to throw the ball with a quarterback who completes 50% of his passes, and another 7 to the other team. 

One factor that NU does have in its favor is that this game amounts to something of a "trap" game for Minnesota.  As far as the Big Ten West is concerned, this game is meaningless to them.  The Big Ten West will be decided November 30 in Minneapolis, when the Wisconsin Badgers travel to TCF Bank Stadium.  If Minnesota is 7-1 or 6-2, that doesn't affect the importance of that game.  So Minnesota's focus may slip past what is likely to be an easy game against paper Wildcats to the looming battle royale against their biggest rivals, the Badgers, for Paul Bunyan's Axe and the Big Ten West title.  That is about the only glimmer of hope NU has come Saturday.

Also, if Morgan is ruled out due to continuing concussion symptoms, facing a Gopher quarterback that is a true freshman and has not started a game would help the Cats keep the game close and possibly steal a victory.  On the flipside, if Smith can't go for the Cats, Marti might get his first start.  Keep in mind, Marti has thrown exactly one pass in his collegiate career (and completed none).  So his first completion Saturday will be his first completion.  Ever.  Not exactly a harbinger of victory.

All signs point to this being a comfortable win for the Gophers, but maybe NU keeps it a little closer than it might otherwise be.  In a perfect set of circumstances, Morgan doesn't play and Smith does, and the NU defense preys on the mistakes of a true freshmen quarterback.  But, in the other 99.9% of scenarios, Minnesota leans on their robust ground game and puts up more points than the anemic Northwestern offense can match.  In any but the most perfect scenario, Minnesota covers the spread of 13.5, with it being closer to the spread if Morgan doesn't play and Smith does, and a veritable chasm if Morgan faces off against Marty.



Minnesota 31, NU 17.  We score a touchdown in a third straight game, but it matters little.  The Gophers cover the spread without breaking a sweat.  Minnesota sets up a battle for the Big Ten West on their home turf in Minneapolis.


Season to Date: Straight up (8-2); Against the spread (6-4)

The Lowes Line does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.

Lowes Line is an e-mailed description of NU's next football game, with an invariably fearless prediction of the outcome and how NU will fare against what the other "experts" predict.  Our good friend and Brother Marcus Lowes began the broadcast mailing in 1996.  The crack Lowes Line Staff (alumni Jersey Cat, GallopingGrapes, P.S. O'Briant, Eric Cockerill, Joel Kanvik, Charlie Simon, and MO'Cats) have continued the Line in memory of Marcus.  For the 2019 season it has returned to HailToPurple.com, for anyone to enjoy.  Thanks to the gridiron brain trust at the Lowes Line!