With quarterback Kain Colter sidelined with an ankle injury, Saturday’s matchup against Minnesota at home, combined with last week’s Colter-less game with Wisconsin, gave Northwestern a preview of the offense led by Trevor Siemian.
It’s an unclear picture at best, and a scary one at worst, as Northwestern (4-3, 0-3 Big Ten) fell 20-17 against Minnesota (5-2, 1-2), its third conference loss in a row.
“I see a team that’s not executing very well right now,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It’s always tough not to be successful. These guys work so hard. You hate to see your guys struggle.”
In the first half, the offense had its share of ups and downs, leaving something to be desired. It wasn't much of a surprise, considering that NU had only scored one touchdown in the last six quarters coming in.
Though they started off slow, the ‘Cats strung together seven plays for 72 yards, capped off by a three-yard Stephen Buckley touchdown run, the first of his career. That score put Northwestern up 7-0 late in the first quarter. Aside from those three minutes and 12 seconds, however, Northwestern couldn’t get much going offensively.
In the second quarter, Northwestern’s three drives ended in a punt, an interception and another punt. NU fans are used to seeing Brandon Williams behind the line of scrimmage (he’s punted 31 times this season for 1,154 yards, compared to 29 punts by Northwestern’s opponents), but now they’re getting a taste of turnovers courtesy of Siemian.
His first interception came late in the first half. Luckily for Northwestern, Minnesota couldn’t capitalize on the takeaway, and the 'Cats got the ball back a little more than two minutes later.
The second pick was much more catastrophic. Siemian’s threw yet another pass he never should have thrown, intended for Christian Jones but intercepted by Minnesota’s James Emanuel for a pick-six to put the Gophers up 14-7 with 1:22 left in the third quarter.
To add insult to injury, Siemian scrambled under pressure from Minnesota’s defensive line and fumbled, just seconds after Northwestern got the ball back following the second interception.
“You can’t turn the ball over three times and expect to win many football games,” Fitzgerald said. “The football gods upstairs aren’t going to let you do that.”
Siemian’s performance had some bright spots, such as his touchdown pass to Tony Jones late in the fourth quarter following three successful fourth-down conversions in the drive.
“We definitely felt like we would bounce back,” junior receiver Christian Jones said. “The momentum was swinging in our way and our defense was making stops the whole game and we finally picked it up and scored a touchdown, so I felt like the whole mood really changed.”
Siemian ended the game with 25 completions for 234 yards and a touchdown.
As Fitzgerald said, however, “it’s everybody’s responsibility” to prevent turnovers. Siemian spent much of his time on the field trying to escape pressure from Minnesota’s defensive front, a sign that the offensive line is struggling to protect the quarterback. Minnesota recorded three sacks, six tackles for losses and five quarterback hits.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Wildcats combined for 10 tackles for losses and three sacks, keeping Minnesota’s attack, for the most part, at bay. Fitzgerald said he was proud of the way the defense played.
“I thought the defense gave us an opportunity to win the game, the way they went out there and got stops,” Fitzgerald said.
But Northwestern, who came into today’s game sixth in the nation in turnovers gained, lost the turnover battle Saturday, failing to capitalize on three chances to take the ball away: Siemian’s fumble, a muffed punt return by Minnesota that ultimately stayed with the Gophers and a last-minute onside kick that didn’t travel 10 yards before the Wildcats pounced on it.
The loss drops Northwestern to 0-3 in the conference, seemingly out of Big 10 Championship discussions and further away from breaking back into the Top 25.
“I feel like we regained our energy level and our focus for this game, but it just comes down to execution, and we couldn’t do that,” said junior linebacker Collin Ellis, who had nine tackles against Minnesota.
Fitz may have described the outcome best, though, after the game: “Disappointing.”