Another week, another Big Ten win for Northwestern (7-4, 7-1 B1G). Coming down from the emotional high of a Big Ten West title, Pat Fitzgerald and the No. 22 Wildcats turned in a solid all-around performance to dismantle Minnesota (5-6, 2-6) 24-14.
Turnovers were the story of the game for Northwestern. Two timely interceptions by Nate Hall and a strip sack from Joe Gaziano turned the contest in favor of Northwestern, who was able to take care of the ball. The Wildcat defense excelled on third and fourth down, holding Minnesota to 5-of-15 in those situations.
Northwestern also got a great game from Clayton Thorson. The signal-caller has struggled the past four weeks, but Thorson was excellent on Saturday, completing 15-of-21 passes for 230 yards. He also scored on a 13-yard rushing touchdown, his seventh of the year.
In a first quarter where the Northwestern offense struggled to gain traction, Nate Hall provided the spark that the team needed. He followed up a tip-drill interception inside of the Northwestern red zone with a leaping pick to set Northwestern up inside Minnesota territory. The Wildcat offense capitalized, capping off a 45-yard drive with a 2-yard Isaiah Bowser touchdown rumble.
As the second quarter opened, the Northwestern defense came up big again. On a fourth-and-1 from the Northwestern 26, the defense stuffed Minnesota’s wildcat quarterback Seth Green. However, as Northwestern’s offense marched back down the other way, it suffered the same fate. Finding itself in a fourth-and-7 from the Minnesota 24, Pat Fitzgerald opted to go for it. Thorson was sacked and the Wildcats turned the ball over.
This time, Minnesota was able to execute a solid drive. Picking up several third down conversions on the way, Mohamed Ibrahim was able to punch the ball in, leaning over a pile up of players to tie the game at 7-7.
On the ensuing possession, an explosive kickoff return from Kyric McGowan set Northwestern up at their 45. A much maligned two-minute offense was able to score in just over one, as Clayton Thorson converted a perfectly executed read option to return the lead to the Wildcats. After a missed Luckenbaugh PAT, Northwestern’s defense held strong to take a 13-7 lead into the half.
Northwestern came out of the gate firing on their opening drive of the second half, but couldn’t convert a fourth-and-8 from the Golden Gopher 34. Minnesota proceeded to work its way down to the Northwestern 20, but was unable to convert again. After the Northwestern defense stuffed Mohamed Ibrahim on consecutive plays, Emmit Carpenter pushed a 38-yard field goal to the right.
The two teams traded punts before Northwestern took control of the game. An excellent third-down throw from Thorson to JJ Jefferson went for a 68-yard connection, and Isaiah Bowser did what he does best, finishing the drive off with a two yard touchdown run.
Moments later, Gaziano sacked Morgan, forcing a fumble which the defensive end recovered inside the Minnesota 20. Jake Collins knocked in a 29-yard field goal to extend Northwestern’s lead to three scores with 7:49 to play.
A big moment came for Northwestern late in the game. Minnesota put together a touchdown drive to cut the lead to 10, but the score was far from the issue for Northwestern. Nate Hall was ejected for targeting on a hit to Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan. It was a really tough break for Hall, as it looked like he tried to lead with his shoulder. He will now miss the first half of the game against Illinois next week.
Minnesota made an attempt creep back into the game late, but they weren’t able to mount anything substantial. After forcing a three-and-out from the Northwestern offense, Minnesota got the ball back on their own 35 with four minutes to go. An Earnest Brown IV sack on fourth down effectively ended the game.
Northwestern returns to Ryan Field next week for Senior Day, where they’ll host Illinois in their final regular season game before the Big Ten Championship.