Early on, it wasn't pretty. In many ways, it was a classic Big Ten football game. But No. 16/17 Northwestern gradually turned a slugfest into a one-sided beatdown Saturday to stay undefeated and move to 5-0 (1-0 in the Big Ten). The Wildcats steamrolled Minnesota 27-0 — in a game in which they were only 3.5-point favorites — and perhaps inserted themselves atop the Big Ten West race.
Minnesota looked competent early. The Gophers moved the ball on each of their first two drives, mixing and matching different packages and formations to keep the Wildcats' defense off balance. But after stalling on both — once with a punt, once turning the ball over on downs — Minnesota was taken aback by NU's speed and athleticism, and stalled. The Gophers didn't even attempt a field goal the rest of the game, and rarely penetrated NU's half of the field.
The turning point of the game came right before halftime, as a Miles Shuler punt return led to a Clayton Thorson touchdown run, and thus a 10-0 Northwestern halftime lead. At that point, I tweeted this:
ballgame— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) October 3, 2015
The game was over. Northwestern never looked back. The Wildcats turned in their most impressive performance of the season. Here are some important takeaways.
1. Northwestern's defense dominated again
This was not unexpected. Minnesota, to put it bluntly, is bad, especially on the offensive side of the ball. But in the second half Saturday, it got to the point where viewers of the game might have started to feel sorry for Minnesota. Because playing against this Northwestern defense can be cruel. Minnesota felt the full effects of that cruelty Saturday.
Minnesota's longest drive of the day was only 37 yards, and the Gophers ended the day with just 173 total yards. The Wildcats got better as the game went on, swarming to the ball and suffocating an offense that seemed to throw everything it had at Northwestern early. When the Gophers' two initial drives came up empty, their tank went empty, and they submitted to a defense that has now given up just three touchdowns in five games.
The Wildcats also forced turnovers. Matt Harris picked off a Mitch Leidner pass in the first half, and Anthony Walker returned a Leidner fumble, which was forced by Tyler Lancaster, for a touchdown in the second half.
Here's a list of the results of Minnesota drives:
Northwestern is good
Northwestern is good
END OF GAME
2. Clayton Thorson looked sharp
The main point of worry for Northwestern fans through four games was the play of the Wildcats' freshman quarterback. In his first ever Big Ten game though, Thorson looked more comfortable than he has all season.
From his first throw of the day all the way to the fourth quarter, Thorson made great reads. Whereas earlier in the season he was predetermining where he would go with the ball, Thorson read the Minnesota defense really well Saturday.
Some of that might have had to do with a banged up Gophers secondary, but for the first time this season, Northwestern's receivers were getting consistent separation, and Thorson was finding them. He found Christian Jones multiple times on timing routes, and hit Flynn Nagel for a key first down. He finished the day 14-19, and ran the ball 11 times for 24 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Also notable was the play of NU's offensive line. With Geoff Mogus and Adam DePietro both out, whether or not Northwestern could protect Thorson and create lanes for its running backs was a major question mark. But Blake Hance had a solid game at left tackle, and Matt Frazier — back in the lineup for the first time this season after recovering from a staph infection — rotated in and out with Brad North at left guard effectively.
3. Miles Shuler's punt return changed the game
This game took a drastic turn in Northwestern's favor in the final two and a half minutes of the first half. With the Wildcats leading 3-0, and both offenses beginning to look sluggish, Northwestern forced a Minnesota three-and-out deep in their own territory, and on that ensuing boot, Miles Shuler did this:
Shuler came to Northwestern with a reputation as a big play threat. Injuries, drops and general underperformance have plagued him, and prevented him from showing that explosiveness. But Shuler finally put it on display Saturday, taking the punt back 55 yards to the Minnesota 5-yard line. Clayton Thorson found the end zone on the very next play, giving NU a 10-0 lead.
The Wildcats would never look back. Fitzgerald stayed aggressive after the touchdown, sprinting out onto the field to call timeouts to try to get the ball back before halftime. And for the rest of the game, Minnesota was forced into come-from-behind mode — a dynamic with which the Gophers were very uncomfortable. Going into halftime, the 10-point lead felt as secure as a 10-point lead can be.
- Solomon Vault made a remarkable one handed catch that was ruled a touchdown on the field, but was overturned by replay:
- With the superback group depleted by injuries to Jayme Taylor (out for the year) and Garrett Dickerson, Northwestern used a decent amount of a new package on running downs. The Wildcats would bring Connor Mahoney in as a sixth offensive lineman and line him up to the left side of left tackle Blake Hance. On occasion, Dan Vitale would also line up to the left of Mahoney. NU had moderate success running behind the overloaded line.