The Wildcats are experiencing a bit of déjà vu. Another Saturday, another early deficit overcome, another fourth quarter lead, another loss sealed by a late turnover.
Northwestern lost its Big Ten opener to Minnesota 35-24 Saturday at Ryan Field. Despite leading 24-21 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Northwestern defense was unable to hold on to the lead.
“It was definitely a rough one because we know we had it,” senior quarterback Mike Kafka said. “We had it grasped, fourth quarter with the lead.”
After trailing by as much as 11 points, the ‘Cats grabbed their first lead of the game late in the third quarter on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Kafka to senior superback Brendan Mitchell. Northwestern relied on it aerial attack for the drive, marching from its own 21-yard line to the Minnesota 13-yard line.
Faced with a fourth-and-two, head coach Pat Fitzgerald elected to go for the lead rather than three points, which still would have left the ‘Cats down 21-20. Kafka found Mitchell in the back-left corner of the end zone, and despite bobbling the catch initially, Mitchell managed to haul in the pass to give the ‘Cats their lead.
That lead simply would not stick for the ‘Cats though, as Minnesota responded to the deficit with a powerful ground attack, supplemented by a 27-yard completion from junior quarterback Adam Weber to sophomore wide receiver Brandon Green. The drive was capped off by a four-yard touchdown rush by sophomore running back Duane Bennett, his third score of the game.
With a chance to take back the lead and steal a win from Minnesota, Northwestern instead faltered. Kafka fumbled twice in final two and a half minutes, including one that Minnesota recovered on the Northwestern three-yard line.
Similar to last week’s loss to Syracuse, Kafka once again had no trouble moving the ball through the air, completing 32 of 47 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns. Kafka has now thrown for over 300 yards in consecutive weeks, making him the first Northwestern quarterback to achieve that feat since C.J. Bacher did it in 2007.
Senior wide receiver Zeke Markshausen, who was Kafka’s favorite target, catching six balls for 70 yards, attributed Kafka’s improved passing accuracy on “his work ethic. There’s no man out there that probably works harder.”
However, with Kafka’s moments of aerial brilliance also came three costly turnovers.
“I think I need to pick my game up a little bit more,” said Kafka. “We left some points out there.”
As strong as Northwestern’s passing game was, the Wildcats’ defense struggled to slow Minnesota. Northwestern surrendered 166 yards rushing, including 89 to Bennett.
The Gophers’ success on the ground stemmed largely from the Northwestern’s difficulty to tackle on first contact. The frequency of missed tackles caused Fitzgerald to describe his team’s tackling as “awful.”
The ‘Cats defense got off to a rough start when on Minnesota’s first drive of the game, the Golden Gophers took only five plays to score. After rushes of seven and nine yards, and passes of 20 and 21 yards, Bennett got into the end zone for his first score of the day from one-yard out.
The Cats responded with a slow, methodical 19-play drive, including five straight third-down conversions, but the offense stalled inside the red zone due to a holding penalty and settled for a 26-yard field goal by Stefan Demos.
In a Minnesota drive eerily similar to the Gophers’ first of the game, Weber made passing connections with seniors wide receiver Eric Decker and tight end Ni Tow-Arnett for 20 and 16 yards respectively, before Bennett punched it in on a three-yard rush. With the four-play drive, the Gophers extended their lead to 11.
Decker and Tow-Arnett almost entirely comprised Minnesota’s receiving options. The duo combined for 13 of the team’s 15 receptions, and 149 of the team’s 186 receiving yards.
After Bennet’s touchdown put Northwestern down 11, the Wildcats wasted no time in responding to the increased deficit as Kafka led a solid passing drive down the field. True freshman Arby Fields got Northwestern its first touchdown of the day with a two-yard run.
Northwestern threatened to score once more to take the lead at the end of the half, but Kafka was intercepted at the Minnesota two-yard line by Kim Royston, sealing a 14-10 halftime score.
“I overthrew him,” said Kafka. “That was my fault on that one. It was just a poor decision.”
“We’ve just got to take care of the football in the red zone,” said Fitzgerald. “You can’t turn it over going in, and you can’t turn it over backed up,” he said, referring also to Kafka’s two fourth quarter fumbles that came within Northwestern’s own 20-yard line.