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Northwestern’s failure to execute in short yardage comes back to bite

The Wildcats must be more efficient and cash in on redzone opportunities

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back on it, the outcome of Northwestern vs. Minnesota shouldn’t have been a surprise; neither was the way we got there. All season, the Wildcats have been simply atrocious punching the ball in the endzone and executing in the red zone, and it once again showed in the Wildcats’ 29-12 loss to the Golden Gophers. The Wildcats came into the game ranked 126th in the country in red zone offense, converting just 70.6 percent of the time.

This lack of execution when the field becomes tight and the plays matter most was quite apparent against the Golden Gophers. Twice, Northwestern was stopped inside its opponent's 15 yard line with just one yard to go for a first down. NU also missed two two-point conversions after it did manage a score.

Minnesota wasn't overly impressive as an offensive counterpart, but the Gophers at least managed to continually put points on the board. While NU’s Jack Mitchell missed his only field-goal attempt of the game, Emmit Carpenter went 3-for-3 on field goals. Minnesota has been solid this year inside the 20, ranking 35th in redzone offense.

Minnesota has won this year thanks to a good defense and solid running game, but had to lean almost exclusively on the former. Rodney Smith was completely gobbled up, recording 32 yards on only 16 carries. Shannon Brooks managed to find some space to salvage the attack, rushing for 73 yards on 14 attempts, and it was enough to propel Minnesota. The Wildcats encountered too much pressure as quarterback Clayton Thorson was sacked seven times, and the Golden Gophers tallied 12 tackles for loss, making their presence known in the Wildcats’ backfield all day long.

It wasn’t as if the Wildcats missed out on opportunities. They had six possessions that reached the Minnesota side of the field. They came away with just 12 points, though. That’s unbelievably inefficient. For contrast, the Gophers scored 29 points in just five trips. And it comes down to simple breakdowns, especially in short-yardage situations both between the 20s and inside the redzone. Northwestern cannot miss out on opportunities against any opponent, but especially against a quality opponent like Minnesota. Saturday versus Illinois gives Pat Fitzgerald’s team not only a change to win a tangible object (HAT), but also execute better in key situations. If it doesn’t, the Wildcats could struggle once again.