Northwestern will be playing for a bowl berth next week against Illinois.
With a chance to get its sixth win on the line, the Northwestern Wildcats (5-6 overall, 4-4 Big Ten) got completely outplayed by the Minnesota Gophers (8-3, 5-3) at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday, losing 29-12 in an ugly showing.
Minnesota got the ball to start the game and quickly got to work. The Gophers drove right down the field on the backs of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, who combined for 58 yards on the first drive. Smith punched it in from five yards out, but the Golden Gophers missed the extra point, so Minnesota had a 6-0 lead just 2:42 into the game.
The Wildcats have had bad starts in every road game so far this year, and Saturday was no different. After giving up the touchdown, the offense came out and promptly went three-and-out in a drive highlighted by multiple penalties and a sack of Clayton Thorson.
Minnesota got the ball back, but got away from what had worked early on and threw the ball twice on its way to a three-and-out. It wouldn’t matter too much though, as Northwestern got the ball back and on third down, Clayton Thorson was sacked (again) and fumbled. Minnesota recovered at midfield, but then did nothing with the turnover and punted it right back to the Wildcats.
Northwestern finally showed some life on offense, driving down the field on a screen pass to Justin Jackson and a fantastic diving catch from Austin Carr. But the drive stalled and Jack Mitchell missed a 45-yard yard field goal attempt to keep the Wildcats scoreless.
Shockingly, both teams traded punts and then Minnesota finally got a first down on its next drive, but Marcus McShepard made a beautiful play to pick Leidner off on a deep ball. Initially, possession was awarded to Minnesota, but was given to McShepard after review.
Despite getting the turnover, Northwestern was unable to get anything going offensively. The Wildcats got a 19-yard run from Jackson to start the drive, but another sack led to Northwestern’s third punt of the day.
Minnesota appeared to be in position for its fourth punt of the day, before Leidner completed a 62-yard pass down the sideline to Rashad Still on third-and-13. It was Leidner’s longest pass of the season, but Northwestern’s defense was able to hold serve in the red zone and held Minnesota to a 19-yard field goal. After a quarter and a half of atrocious football, the Gophers led 9-0.
After going down by two scores, the Northwestern offense finally woke up enough to get the ball down to the Minnesota 19, primarily on passes to Austin Carr and Flynn Nagel. However, the drive stalled again, this time when Northwestern decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 and got stuffed on a run up the middle.
The Gophers got the ball back with around three minutes left in the half, but did nothing with it and punted. On the ensuing Northwestern possession, Thorson was sacked (for the fourth time) and fumbled again, giving Minnesota the ball on the Northwestern 30-yard line.
A few plays later, Emmit Carpenter drilled a 42-yard field goal to increase the Minnesota lead to 12. With only 21 seconds left in the half, Northwestern took a knee to go into the break.
The start of the second half wasn’t any better for Northwestern. The Wildcats received the kickoff and 58 seconds later punted the ball right back to Minnesota. Three plays and 1:34 after that, Minnesota punted it back to Northwestern. After three more plays and another sack (in 1:44 of gametime), another Wildcats punt.
Minnesota started its next drive at midfield and moved down the field with a 20-yard pass to Eric Carter. The Gophers got down to the goal line on a jet sweep to Drew Wolitarsky for 17 yards, but were stopped once again at the goal line. Carpenter easily hit a 30-yarder to put Minnesota up 15-0.
Northwestern managed to get a first down on its next drive with a 12-yard pass to Austin Carr, but a couple plays later, disaster struck. Carr was hit in the head by Duke McGhee on a route over the middle and went down. McGhee was ejected for targeted and Carr was taken to the locker room with what was later called an “upper body injury.”
After losing its best player, the Northwestern offense managed to barely convert on a fourth-and-5 to keep the drive moving. Then after a couple of long runs from Jackson, Northwestern finally got on the board on a 4-yard Jackson touchdown. With his team down 15-6, Pat Fitzgerald decided to go for two, but Jackson was stuffed on a run up the middle to keep the deficit at nine points.
On the ensuing kickoff, Anthony Walker made a huge play, stripping the ball from Jalen Myrick to give Northwestern the ball on the Minnesota 22. Unfortunately, the Wildcats offense did nothing with it, going four-and-out, getting no points, and giving the ball right back to Minnesota.
Over the next 2:37 of the game, both teams ran three offensive plays for a total of zero yards and traded punts.
After the Gophers got the ball back, they drove down into Northwestern territory with a big reception by Brooks and a handful of runs. Minnesota continued to ride Smith into the red zone, before Leidner found Wolitarsky in the end zone to increase the Gopher lead to 22-6. It was Leidner’s first touchdown pass since October 1st, and it put the game out of reach.
The Northwestern offense did its best to fight back, as the Wildcats had their best drive of the day on the ensuing possession. A 4-minute, 78-yard drive resulted in a Flynn Nagel touchdown catch. Thorson overthrew Andrew Scanlan on the two-point conversion attempt, keeping the deficit to 10 points.
It wouldn’t matter though, as Northwestern attempted an onside kick following the score and let Minnesota not only recover it, but also return it to Northwestern’s 15-yard line. Two plays later, Mitch Leidner ran it from 12 yards out to truly ice it for the Gophers.
- Northwestern’s offense completely disappeared against Minnesota. After scoring 45 points against Purdue, the Wildcats only managed 12 points and 328 yards of offense. Clayton Thorson finished 28-45 for 276 yards, 1 TD and fumbled twice. He was also sacked seven times throughout the afternoon.
- Austin Carr is hurt and we don’t know how long he’ll be out for. After taking a shot to the head in the third quarter, Carr walked off the field and headed into the locker room. It was announced that he had an “upper-body injury” and he did not return to the game.
- Northwestern now sits at 5-6 on the year and have to win next week against Illinois to clinch a bowl berth. The last time Northwestern was in this situation was 2014, when the Fighting Illini defeated Northwestern 47-33 at Ryan Field.