Northwestern's bid to improve to 3-0 in the Big Ten came up just short on Saturday, as the 'Cats dropped a narrow 24-17 contest to the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Minneapolis.
Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner, who was dealing with turf toe and a sprained MCL, passed efficiently and nearly doubled his rushing total on the year. A 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Minnesota sophomore Jalen Myrick proved to be the game-winning score, helping to stave off another triple-digit rushing performance by freshman running back Justin Jackson and late-game heroics by quarterback Trevor Siemian.
Going up against a run-heavy attack for the second straight week, Northwestern actually outrushed the Gophers, but Leidner tallied 153 passing yards on 15 attempts. The sophomore quarterback came into the game with 25 fewer pass attempts than Siemian had completed all season, but Leidner nearly doubled the NU quarterback's yards-per-attempt total on Saturday and rushed for a pair of touchdowns to boot.
The game deviated from the formula in the first half. While the turnover battle was supposed to decide the game, neither team recorded a takeaway before halftime. Field position, expected to be similarly important, was a non-factor; three of the four scoring drives (and four of six overall) stretched more than 70 yards.
Northwestern finished the first half with a chip-shot field goal from Jack Mitchell, bringing the deficit down to four points, but after a scoreless third quarter, the Gophers tacked on a field goal of their own.
On the following drive, after kick returner Solomon Vault fumbled Minnesota's kickoff out-of-bounds at the three-yard line, Northwestern marched downfield on arguably its most impressive drive of the season. Siemian passed for 60 yards to bring the 'Cats to the 10-yard line, and after a key roughing the passer penalty by Briean Boddy-Calhoun on 3rd-and-goal, the NU quarterback took it up the middle himself for a two-yard touchdown.
Minnesota's response was swift: a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown by Myrick, on which the sophomore defensive back went untouched past NU's entire kickoff coverage for the go-ahead score. Two drives later, Northwestern came up short on a fourth-down conversion at Minnesota's 33-yard line. The 'Cats had one last attempt with 31 seconds remaining from their own 16-yard line, but Siemian's last-second hail mary pass was intercepted.
The win extended Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill's unbeaten streak when leading at halftime, and handed Northwestern its first Big Ten loss and third overall on the season.
The 'Cats return to Evanston next weekend for a homecoming matchup against the No. 21 Nebraska Cornhuskers. The game is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.