Northwestern (5-6, 4-4 B1G) struggled royally on offense from start to finish, dropping one on the road to the Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-3, 5-3 B1G), 29-12.
The Wildcats will need a bounceback week and victory in their season finale against Illinois next Saturday to secure bowl eligibility.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this performance for the Wildcats. NU had countless opportunities to get back into this game, as their defense kept them in striking distance until the very end, but simply put, Northwestern had one of their worst offensive performances of the season and the comeback never came.
It took Minnesota almost no time at all to jump out to an early lead. On their first drive, the Golden Gophers went 80 yards on seven plays in under three minutes, punctuated with a five-yard touchdown run from Minnesota running back Rodney Smith.
Before the end of the first half, Minnesota’s place kicker Emmit Carpenter would tack on three field goals from 19, 42 and 30 yards out respectively to give the Golden Gophers a 12-0 lead at halftime.
This was the first time that the Wildcats were held scoreless through the first two quarters since their ugly 9-7 loss to Illinois State back in week two, a good indication as to their performance through the first 30 minutes.
Northwestern finally showed some life, and was able to put some points on the board with 2:17 left in the third quarter, finding the end zone on a four-yard TD run from Justin Jackson.
After a failed two-point conversion, Anthony Walker Jr. took matters into his own hands on the ensuing kick off, ripping the ball from Minnesota’s return man and giving the ‘Cats possession in the red zone with some newfound momentum.
And yet, NU simply couldn’t muster up the big play on offense that they needed, a trend in this one. They would eventually turn the ball over on downs, one of three instances on the day where they failed to convert on fourth down, and everything from then on was just too little too late.
Minnesota would continue to dominate on offense in the fourth quarter as senior QB Mitch Leidner would lead the Gophers 80 yards once again and find Drew Wolitarsky for the nine-yard score. On senior day and in his final home game, Leidner would finish with 197 yards and two touchdowns – one through the air and one on the ground.
NU would tack on one more score late, a nine-yard pitch and catch from Thorson to Flynn Nagel, but another failed two-point conversion along with a subsequent failed onside kick turned their sixth loss into reality.
Clayton Thorson would finish with 276 yards (on 28/45 passing) and Justin Jackson finished with 90 yards on 20 carries. As for senior receiver Austin Carr, his night was cut short after a scary injury to the head in the third quarter that resulted in a targeting ejection for the Minnesota player who hit him. Carr was able to walk off the field under his own power, but was escorted to the locker room and would miss the remainder of the contest. He finished with 68 yards on five receptions.
The biggest story of the game, however, was that all night long, Northwestern simply had no answer for the Golden Gophers up front. Quarterback Clayton Thorson was under pressure seemingly every single time he dropped back for a pass. By the end of the game, Minnesota had tallied seven sacks, including two strip sacks in the first half alone, along with 12 total tackles for loss, clearly a disruptive effort to the NU passing and running games.
Once again, and with one week left in the season, Pat Fitzgerald and the coaching staff will have to hit the drawing board with their offensive line. This is a team that lives and dies with QB protection – more time for Clayton Thorson opens up the passing game, which opens up the running game and set the ‘Cats loose on offense.
NU returns home to Evanston for their season finale against Illinois on Saturday as the two teams battle it out for the Land of the Lincoln trophy. Northwestern has one more shot to capture that elusive sixth victory and secure a trip to a bowl game.