“Firing on all cylinders” is a phrase that means someone's at the absolute top of their game and nothing is holding them back; they’re doing everything right.
Unfortunately for Northwestern football (3-5, 1-4 B1G) this season has been everything but. In their latest game, a 41-14 loss to Minnesota (6-2 4-1 B1G), it almost felt like the complete opposite was true for the ’Cats, as their defense was strung out over long periods of time and their offense was almost completely dead in the water, with almost no movement for a majority of the game, almost a total failure on both sides of the ball.
“Not a whole lot to say; we obviously weren't physical enough at the point of attack on defense, couldn’t get off the field early, and then offensively, not playing complimentary football and not sustaining drives,” Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “Credit to Minnesota, obviously they were able to kind of get into their mindset; they wanted to slow the game down and take the air out of the ball, and [you] play in their hands when you get down, you know, multiple scores.”
One of the big headlines of the game was the return of senior quarterback Andrew Marty, who saw his first action since suffering a shoulder injury during the Wildcats’ 30-23 loss against Duke (3-5, 0-4 ACC) earlier this year. After first entering the game for a redzone possession in relief of sophomore Ryan Hilinksi – who quietly went 1-for-6 with just five yards on the day – Marty took over the starting job for the ’Cats in the second half, turning in a 11-for-16 performance with 93 yards.
“For me, it’s kind of what I expect at this point, to go in and be a spark,” Marty said of his late entrance into the game. “It was great, you could feel the energy. I just wish I could have done that a couple more times earlier on.”
Unfortunately for Northwestern, they didn’t have much to show in the offensive columns due to a stifling performance by Minnesota’s offense. After 60 minutes of play, the Golden Gophers absolutely dominated time of possession, holding the ball for over 40 minutes to Northwestern’s 20, effectively eliminating the ’Cats from any offensive chance down the stretch. With dominant rushing performances from first-year running backs Mar’keise Irving (110 yards, two touchdowns) and Ky Thomas (106 yards), the Gophers ran the clock and stomped down the field, icing the game from any chance of a comeback.
“You’ve got to play complimentary football, right?” Fitzgerald said. “If you're not executing very well offensively, you keep your defense out there as long as we did in the first half. It’s a recipe that they have, and we played right into their hands. [It’s] disappointing, but congratulations to them.”
The momentum of the game was defined from the opening possessions for both teams. Minnesota took the opening kickoff and marched the ball 67 yards down the field – rushing it eight times – before kicking a field goal to open the scoring; the possession took nearly half the quarter off the clock, a 7-minute masterclass in pushing tempo.
Northwestern, on the other hand, took their first play from scrimmage and fumbled the ball away, allowing the Golden Gophers to score and placing them in a 10-0 hole early.
After a three-and-out drive from the ’Cats and another grinding drive from the Gophers that netted them another field goal, Northwestern finally broke through the mold and put together a nice drive of their own, with a few key pickups from sophomore running back Evan Hull making key impacts. After the ’Cats got in close to the redzone, Marty entered the game in relief of Hilinski and put the ’Cats on the scoresheet, throwing a jump ball to Hull, who ran it in to make it 13-7.
The Gophers, undeterred by the quarterback change, responded with another 7-minute long drive, ending with a touchdown to put Minnesota up 20-7. Despite gaining a bit of momentum from their own score, the ’Cats once again stalled out offensively, and the Gophers began plotting out another long drive to ice the game before the half. Finally breaking through, the Northwestern defense finally made a stand to end the half, as sophomore defensive back Coco Azema deflected a pass for sophomore safety Brandon Joseph, who made an acrobatic leap to save the score.
With the defense behind them and rejuvenated at halftime, the offense took the opening kickoff and started to plod down the field with Andrew Marty at the helm. Unfortunately for the ’Cats, it was the only momentum they had all game, and they fell short on their quest to pull within one, turning the ball over on downs after a failed conversion attempt.
The stop behind them, the Gophers never looked back, and began pushing through the Wildcats defense further. Northwestern, failing to pick up any significant yardage throughout the second half, watched from the sidelines as the Gophers ran away with the victory, scoring three second half touchdowns to win the game 41-14.
“That's kind of what's really frustrating to me right now… we're not getting consistent execution in the moment,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re not focused on what our job is at that point in time. I don't know what it is, but if we don't can't get it done consistently, then we're going to continue to look at the scheme. [...] We're going to make some personnel changes.”
In short, neither side seemed to complement each other this week. The offense failed to get any meaningful yards under them when it mattered most, and the defense could not pick up critical stops, allowing the Golden Gophers to run away with the game. Questions are still to be answered as the ’Cats try to avoid postseason elimination, which will arrive if they lose just two more games.
As always, however, there are positives. Andrew Marty might finally get the chance to start a meaningful game, something that he’s been looking for since he first broke out in 2019. The defense was able to make clean tackles at sections, meaning it’s just a matter of consistency now. Their next opponent, the Iowa Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2 B1G), is coming off decimating losses to Purdue (5-3, 3-2 B1G) and Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2 B1G), and will now have to play a hostile night game in front of the Ryan Field crowd. Cylinders back in a row, fire when ready.