by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
MINNEAPOLIS — The Wildcats' defense bent over and over again. Fortunately for Northwestern, Minnesota was the one to break each and every time.
The Golden Gophers (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) had several chances to tie the score in the fourth quarter, but the Wildcats (6-1, 2-1) ultimately prevailed, 21-13. The Wildcats rode 182 rushing yards from junior running back Venric Mark, 151 of which came in the first half, to victory. Mark found gaping holes up the middle in the first half to help Northwestern take a 21-10 lead into the locker room. When asked if the Wildcats' scouting report called for "running it down their throats," Mark laughed.
"That's what it basically said," Mark said. "I believe seven of the first ten plays were all run plays, so our goal was to come in here and mulch them up."
Northwestern was held off of the scoreboard in the second half. The holes up the middle were no longer so large, and MarQueis Gray was able to rush for 86 yards on nine carries to bring Minnesota back into contention. Senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt acknowledged the difficulty of bringing Gray down after the game.
"He's big, so you've got to bring the pads when you tackle him," Arnfelt said. "I think we learned, if anything, today, arm tackles aren't going to work in the Big Ten."
Golden Gophers quarterback Max Shortell's lob into the back of the end zone midway through the fourth quarter on fourth-and-goal, however, soared well over wide receiver Andre McDonald's head. Seven fumbles also didn't help Minnesota's cause, including two fumbles on the Golden Gophers' final drive.
"I have said all along, we have no margin for error," Golden Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "We're a young team, all those kind of things. You put it all in perspective but when you play this game and you have teams that are similar, the team that makes less mistakes at the end of the day wins. We out-gained them, we did a lot of good things, but we had bad snaps at critical times."
Northwestern got off to a fast start Saturday, when Minnesota fumbled the opening kickoff. Mark made the Golden Gophers pay with a 26-yard rush up the middle.
"The hole was huge," Mark said. "It was a lot bigger than I expected it to be. Basically, when I just got the ball, I saw (senior guard) Brian Mulroe in front of me. He did a great job doing his job with surging, going to the linebacker and giving me a two-way go. I could have cut left or right. The way that the linebacker was flowing, it was best that I cut left, and I did. Once I'm in the open, I'm like, 'OK, this is going to be great.'"
The Golden Gophers responded with a drive into the Wildcats' red zone, but were forced to settle for a 31-yard field goal, after Northwestern effectively contested two Max Shortell passes, including a fine breakup by redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose.
The Wildcats surged back into Golden Gophers' territory guided largely by another huge run from Mark, this one a 47-yard dash. Junior quarterback Kain Colter ran it in from two yards out on second-and-goal to give Northwestern a 14-3 lead.
Gray came in for the Golden Gophers' second drive and had plenty of success with three completions for 29 yards and two rushes for 30 yards, the final one a 25-yard sprint into the end zone.
Minnesota got the ball with a chance to tie, but on the first play of the drive, senior defensive end Quentin Williams got a hand on Gray's pass, and senior linebacker David Nwabuisi snared the deflection to give Northwestern the ball at its own 43. The Wildcats went back to their star, handing the ball off to Mark twice, the first rush for nine yards and the second rush for 48 yards.
"It was huge too," Mark said, commenting on the hole his offensive line provided for him. "Great blocking or bad defensive scheme, whatever you choose."
Northwestern went into the locker room, leading 21-10. From there on out, the only score was Jordan Wettstein's 38-yard field goal early in the third quarter. The Wildcats managed just 77 total yards in the second half, including just 46 rushing yards. According to coach Pat Fitzgerald, their running game slowed to a trickle once the Golden Gophers put nine players in the box.
"We've got to be able to take advantage of some things," Fitzgerald said. "They put nine guys in the box and we've got to throw to the guys who are open. We've got to take some shots."
Minnesota had several chances to tie from there on out, but it was unable to stuff it into the end zone from eight yards out midway through the fourth quarter, and two Wildcats sacks doomed the Golden Gophers' final drive.
Colter finished a perfect 10-for-10, but after the game, Fitzgerald admitted that his team needed to take more shots downfield. Colter's completions generally consisted of screen passes and shovel passes.
"The one good thing that I feel from both of our quarterbacks is we took care of the ball," Fitzgerald said. "So that's a positive to take from today. But we've got to be better than 1-for-10 on third and fourth down combined, and we've got to be able to throw the ball more efficiently and more effectively."
The Wildcats won despite managing just 13 first downs. They finished with 67 passing yards.