A win is a win, no matter how ugly it is. To be frank, Northwestern’s (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) 21-13 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2, 0-2) wasn’t quite the Kate Upton of college football victories.
The Wildcats came into Saturday’s contest in Minneapolis off the heels of a 39-28 loss at Penn State wherein Northwestern floundered a 20-point lead thanks to 22 unanswered points from the Nittany Lion offense in the 4rth quarter. To beat Minnesota, who rested last week, Northwestern focused on resuscitating the offense and restoring the defense that led them to a 5-1 record.
Things started quickly for the ‘Cats, who kicked off to start the game but recovered the botched return from Gophers linebacker Lamonte Edwards to gain possession at the Minnesota 26-yard line. Venric Mark (182 rushing yards, 2 touchdowns) then scored on the first play from scrimmage of the game to give the ‘Cats an early 7-0 lead.
Minnesota took their opening drive 76 yards, but was forced to settle for a 31-yard field goal. Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter scored on a 2-yard rush to cap off a 75-yard response drive for a 14-3 NU lead.
Gophers quarterback MarQueis Grey, making his first appearance since missing three weeks with a leg injury, rushed for a 25-yard touchdown to start the 2nd quarter and bring Minnesota within three points, but Mark scored on a 48-yard run after an NU three-and-out followed by an interception by linebacker David Nwabusi. This touchdown with 12:50 left in the half would be the last points Northwestern scored.
Both teams finished out the half with nothing more than a few penalties and mistimed snap from Minnesota, a reoccurring theme in the second half, which cost the Gophers 17 yards. Once halftime was over and rain picked up in Minneapolis, things got messy for both sides.
A Northwestern three-and-out started the 3rd quarter and a Minnesota field goal followed, bringing the score to 21-13 Northwestern. Each of the ‘Cats following four possession ended in punts and Gophers back up quarterback Max Shortell (9-19, 103 yards), who started the game, stepped back under center after Grey reinjured his leg.
Shortell struggled to gather momentum and when he did he could not convert it to points. After an 81-yard drive to the Northwestern 6-yard line within the last five minutes of the game, he scrambled, recovered his own fumble, and missed two consecutive passes to turnover the ball to NU.
Much of Northwestern’s success came from Minnesota’s struggles.
Besides the mistimed snap in the 2nd quarter, five different Minnesota snaps hit the ground before getting to Grey or Shortell. On the aforementioned drive, Shortell’s pass fell to the ground right after his intended target, wide receiver A.J. Barker did, slipping as he changed directions to make up for Shortell’s underthrown offering. He was all alone.
However, Minnesota bested the ‘Cats in every measurable category but rushing yards. So how did Northwestern manage to win the game?
The answer is the first most important thing we learned from today’s game:
1) The defense will bend, but it rarely breaks
Northwestern gave up 327 total offensive yards to Minnesota, a number exacerbated by the roughly 34 minutes the Gophers spent with the ball compared to NU’s 26 minutes. Minnesota averaged just under 11 yards per completion and found the red zone four times.
But the Wildcats showed a remarkable resiliency in the direst instances. When Minnesota fought to tie the game or take the lead, Northwestern was up to the task, thanks in part to cornerback Nick VanHoose, who broke up three critical passes, and linebacker Tyler Scott, whose eight tackles and two sacks helped preserve the lead.
Of course, things could be much different if Grey was never re-injured, but at the end of the day, the Wildcat defense was able to support the shaky offense and proved it can be relied on in critical situations. This brings us to the next thing we learned.
2) The passing game needs a reboot
With the maturation of Colter, the emergence of quarterback Trevor Siemian, the addition of wide receiver Kyle Prater from the University of Southern California and the return of wide receiver Tony Jones, few facets of the Northwestern football team were as talked about or touted as the passing game.
But in the past two games, Colter and Siemian have only passed for a combined 202 yards. We have seen the explosive potential of the passing game on display this season in games against South Dakota and Indiana, but it must come back in full force if the Wildcats expect to seriously compete for the Legends division title and a spot in the Rose Bowl.
Besides the obvious benefit of scoring more points, a more effective passing game takes pressure off of Mark and the Northwestern defense. It worked Saturday, but one cannot expect it to last until Thanksgiving.
3) Northwestern will go bowling again
With their sixth win, the Wildcats have become the first Big Ten team eligible to play in a bowl game. Northwestern also clinched a bowl berth last year against Minnesota, but the win came on Nov. 19 to cap off a four-game winning streak after a five game losing streak.
While it is nice to have the security of the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl or PapaJohns.com Bowl in their pocket, you would be hard pressed to find a Wildcat pleased with the prospect of going anywhere but the Rose Bowl, which is still within the realm of possibility.
However, the road ahead gets much tougher.
The ‘Cats come home to Ryan Field to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-2, 1-1) for Family Weekend.
Last season, the 3-5 Wildcats upset the No. 9 Huskers 28-25 thanks to the heroics of Colter and former wide receiver Jeremy Ebert.
While Nebraska, who rested this week after losing to No. 8 Ohio State 63-38 in Columbus, has fallen off a bit since last season, this game is still Northwestern’s biggest test of the year thus far.
If the Wildcats want to smell the roses in Pasadena on New Year’s Day, it starts by beating the Cornhuskers at Ryan Field.