Main Storyline: Minnesota draws within 14-10 on MarQueis Gray's 25-yard touchdown run up the middle.
Just as the first quarter couldn't have started off any better for Northwestern, the second quarter couldn't have started off any better for Minnesota. MarQueis Gray ran it 25 yards up the middle, and asides from a few tugs on his jersey, he went untouched. The Wildcats' struggles with mobile quarterbacks clearly has continued into 2012.
Main Storyline: Northwestern gave the ball back to Minnesota in its own territory after a shanked punt, but the Golden Gophers gave it right back, on a MarQueis Gray interception, and Venric Mark made them pay with another long run to take a 21-10 lead.
Again, much like last week, Northwestern didn't answer the bell on offense, going three-and-out. On third down, Trevor Siemian lofted an immediate timing route up the right sideline to Tony Jones, but Jones was hit immediately as the ball came in, and the ball fell incomplete. Jones was somewhat fortunate that the deflection wasn't picked off. Brandon Williams added to the Wildcats' misery with a shanked pass that clearly hit the side of his right foot, but the Golden Gophers again bailed them out as MarQueis Gray was picked off on the first play of Minnesota's drive. Defensive end Quentin Williams did well to tip Gray's pass, one of many tipped passes this season for Williams, and David Nwabuisi snared the deflection. Then, Venric Mark was off to the races easily breaking through the middle for a 45-yard touchdown run. He easily out-sprinted the entire Minnesota defense downfield. Thirteen minutes and 10 seconds in, Venric Mark had 134 yards on seven carries with two touchdowns. He was averaging 19.41 yards per carry.
Main Storyline: Northwestern's defense bent but it didn't break, and the Wildcats barely held up on a Golden Gophers' fake field-goal rush.
Minnesota continued to have plenty of success on offense, when it didn't turn the ball over. Donnell Kirkwood easily found seams up the middle, chugging his way past midfield. He danced out of tackles, escaping the arms of Northwestern's tacklers. The Wildcats' lauded rush defense surrendered 123 rushing yards to the Golden Gophers 20 minutes in. Finally, Northwestern started to get some penetration in the backfield, forcing Minnesota into a third-and-11 from the Wildcats' 36. Gray's third down pass was tipped once again, leaving Jerry Kill with an interesting decision. Either a 53-yard field goal, a miserably short punt or going for it on third-and-extremely-long. Of course, Minnesota had plenty of options. Given its success in the rushing game, a surprise run up the middle wouldn't have even been out of the realm of possibility. Instead, Jordan Wettstein lined up in field-goal formation, only to rush left. Even with a missed tackle, the Golden Gophers' trick play fell two yards short.
Main Storyline: Northwestern drove into Minnesota territory on one enormous rush by Venric Mark, but Pat Fitzgerald opted not to test Jeff Budzien's leg with a 49-yard field goal, and the Wildcats' fourth-down play was broken up.
Northwestern continued to dominate on offense, with Kain Colter finding Demetrius Fields on the left sideline. Then, Venric Mark found another enormous hole up the middle to push the Wildcats into field-goal territory. Trevor Siemian came on to attempt a deep pass, but his pass to Kyle Prater was short and spectacularly contested, so Prater's return to the offense was not a successful one. On fourth down, Siemian tossed a beautiful spiral over the middle to Colter, but his pass was a little high and behind Colter, and the defender contested it perfectly.
Main Storyline: Northwestern's defense once again couldn't solve MarQueis Gray. Fortunately, it didn't have to, as a mishandled snap dug a hole too deep for even the Golden Gophers to get out of.
Northwestern nearly got Minnesota into a three-and-out. After another long run up the middle, they stuffed Kirkwood on the outside run, broke up a second-down pass, but on third down, Quinn Evans was whistled for pass interference to push the Golden Gophers into Wildcats' territory. The problem for Minnesota was that every time it gained momentum, it gave it away, right away. Sure enough, MarQueis Gray couldn't handle the next snap, and it bounced behind him. By the time he pounced on the loose ball, he had lost 17 yards. Still, Gray had another incredibly successful scramble, racing upfield for 14 yards. It was nearly a lot more, but he was finally tripped up to set up third-and-13. Gray found huge holes up the middle all half, nearly matching Mark by averaging more than 10 yards per carry himself. He had 71 yards on his first five carries, further underscoring Northwestern's struggles against two-way quarterbacks.
Main Storyline: Northwestern couldn't get out of the shadow of its own end zone, but Minnesota failed to advance past midfield with about a minute remaining, and the Wildcats went into the locker room, leading 21-10.
Northwestern's next drive went nowhere. Christian Eldred's punt pinned the Wildcats close to their goal line, and they were unable to get anywhere until third down. Kain Colter's third-down run was underrated in its importance, giving Brandon Williams some room to work with, particularly important given that Williams shanked his last kick. Brandon Williams had a much better punt this time around, and cornerback Nick VanHoose had another stellar play, pursuing the punt to its final destination. He arrived right as the punt did, and tripped the returner up. Another fumbled snap ended the half for Minnesota, a fitting end given that the Golden Gophers' own mistakes killed them the entire half.
Main Storyline: Minnesota fumbles away the opening kickoff. Northwestern pounces on it and takes a 7-0 lead on Venric Mark's 26-yard touchdown run.
The game literally couldn't have started off any better for Northwestern. After Minnesota fumbled away the opening kickoff, despite a really short kick by Steve Flaherty, Northwestern pounced on the ball. It took just one offensive play for the Wildcats to get on the board as Venric Mark found a huge hole up the middle and raced 26 yards into the end zone untouched. It literally took just 11 seconds for Northwestern to take a 7-0 lead. Credit Pat Fitzgerald with the intelligent decision to defer until the second half. It paid off there. The Golden Gophers second return wasn't much better as KJ Maye fumbled the ball and had to kneel at the 10.
Main Storyline: Minnesota's first offensive drive was a little too easy, using screen passes to easily work its way upfield. Jordan Wettstein capped the drive with a 31-yard field goal.
Max Shortell is easily using sideline screens to move down the field. On Shortell's toss to MarQueis Gray along the right sideline, there was literally no one there to contest the catch. David Nwabuisi arrived a full second later. A few plays later, Northwestern mustered its first pressure of the game, but Deonte Gibson was a little too eager to bring Shortell down, and clearly grabbed him by the face mask. The Wildcats again looked lost on a simple deep slant to A.J. Barker, but Nick VanHoose made up for lost time, getting his hand in the way, to deflect what looked like a certain touchdown. The Wildcats were frequently bailed out by Shortell's lack of precision. His third-down pass into the end zone was way over his receiver's head. He tossed one screen pass well over his receiver's head, so that it skipped past the sideline. His toss to Barker would have been a touchdown if he had just led his receiver properly.
Main Storyline: Northwestern expands its lead to 14-3 on more hard running from Mark and a fortuitous pass interference call.
Northwestern's second drive netted a similar lesson. Just hand the ball to Venric Mark. Mark beautifully found a seam to the left, off a hole that wasn't immediately apparent in the defense, and curved his way upfield for another tremendous gain. He has the speed to make a slight seam turn into a major gain. As a result, Mark has 76 yards in his first three carries. After trying a few fancier plays, including an offhand shovel pass to superback Dan Vitale for five yards, Northwestern went back to its bread and butter. An illegal substitution penalty cost Northwestern five yards when it had third-and-one at the Minnesota four-yard line. Then, the Wildcats had to burn a timeout. It was all worth it though when Troy Stoudemire held Demetrius Fields on a tricky throw up the middle. Northwestern hasn't looked great running it up the middle, despite Venric Mark's wishes. He was stuffed on first-and-goal, and Kain Colter didn't fare all that much better, as he was wiped out right as he crossed the goal line.
Main Storyline: Down 14-3, Minnesota again had Northwestern's defense figured out, driving into Wildcats' territory as the quarter came to an end.
The Wildcats struggled with third-down defense last week and it continued into Minneapolis as MarQueis Gray rolled right and found a wide-open Andre McDonald for a first down. How they could leave anyone wide open on the right side when Gray is rolling right is hard to figure out. He later found Lincoln Plesk for another good gain, as he again rolled right, waiting until he reached the sideline to unleash a strong and accurate pass. In the meanwhile, Nick VanHoose had another impressive pass breakup downfield, getting his arm in there, after the receiver appeared to have him beaten downfield by a solid three yards.