The Gophers football team cooked up its traditional meat-and-potatoes recipe on Saturday: the vital protein of Mohamed Ibrahim running the ball, with the fortifying starch of Minnesota’s no-nonsense defense.
Those stick-to-your-bones staples led to a 31-3 victory over struggling Northwestern at a cold, flurry-filled and sparsely attended Huntington Bank Stadium.
The upshot of spice came before kickoff with once-Big Ten West-leading Illinois losing 31-24 to Purdue. The Illini’s losses in the past two weeks creates a bigger opportunity for Minnesota, and others, to get back in the race for the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 3.
Minnesota (7-3) is tied with the Illini, Boilermakers and Iowa at 4-3 in conference play. The Hawkeyes, who come to Minnesota next Saturday, beat Wisconsin 24-10 in Iowa City.
The Gophers’ three game-losing streak (Purdue, Illinois and Penn State) put them out of sight, but a three-game winning streak (Rutgers, Nebraska and Northwestern) has put them back in the mix.
“I told our team a few weeks ago, ‘Listen, nobody is going to talk about you,’ ” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “You haven’t earned the right … for people to talk about you. … But at the end of the day, if we just play better and we take it one game at a time, we dug ourselves a pretty big hole, every week they have just continued to do that.”
To keep up the protein metaphor, if Ibrahim were a protein this Thanksgiving season, he would be a Turducken — a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey. He’s that savory.
Ibrahim ran the ball 36 times for 178 yards and three touchdowns in just over three quarters of work Saturday and continued to move up Gophers and Big Ten record books in the process. The sixth-year senior also continues to make up for the Gophers’ lackluster passing attack.
With Tanner Morgan ruled out for a second game in a month, backup Athan Kaliakmanis made his first home start. He wasn’t sharp, going 7 for 13 passing for 64 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions.
The Gophers’ defense was able to lock down dynamic Wildcats tailback Evan Hull, limiting the Maple Grove native to 12 carries for 47 yards and three receptions for 13 yards until a 31-yard gain in garbage time.
“It was our box — our D-line, our linebackers — played unbelievably, man,” said safety Tyler Nubin. “They were getting off the ball, setting edges, creating knock-back in the run game, that made it a lot easier for us to be able to contain (Hull) like that.”
By the fourth quarter, Northwestern was down to its third-string quarterback. When Brendan Sullivan and Ryan Hilinski were knocked out, Carl Richardson was thrust onto the field.
Northwestern wasn’t able to get anything going outside of the final drive of the first half. Sullivan hit top receiver Malik Washington for a 27-yard gain, but the quarterback exited the game mid-drive. Hilinski then hit Washington on a 49-yard completion.
Despite the two explosive plays, Minnesota held Northwestern to a 35-yard field goal. That’s all the Wildcats (1-9, 1-6) would get all game as they lost their ninth straight.
The West will be won by one of the four programs currently tied for the lead.
“It’s the wild West,” Fleck said. “There are really good football teams in the West. I think we are a really good football team.”