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“Pissed off” Wildcats earn another Big Ten win behind imposing defense

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Northwestern proved a point in Minneapolis, a point they will probably have to prove again.

Northwestern v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS — Pat Fitzgerald, in his own words, was “pissed.”

Just days after his Wildcats beat Iowa on the road to clinch the Big Ten West title, oddsmakers had set 5-5 Minnesota as favorites for Saturday’s game. Many, including us, circled the matchup as a trap game following last Saturday’s emotional high and a couple key injuries.

“It was insulting, you know, we come up here as underdogs,” Fitzgerald said after NU’s 24-14 win in Minneapolis. “Are you kidding me? That’s a joke.”

As the line continued to move towards the Golden Gophers, the taste of disrespect lingered. Fitzgerald hammered the point home before the team flew to the Twin Cities.

“I made it very crystal clear that the the level of respect for the guys in that locker room is not very high because of a couple of games early in the year when we beat ourselves,” Fitzgerald said. “We want to earn respect, and let’s go do it.”

Northwestern will never be able to control its own narrative as long as observers can point to early-season losses to Duke and Akron, but the Wildcats made another statement with a ten-point win over Minnesota. It was Northwestern’s 14th Big Ten win in 15 tries, their eighth consecutive Big Ten road win, and their 10th consecutive win against a Big Ten West opponent.

The bravado of shirtless pregame warmups aside, defense was always going to win the frigid day. And Northwestern’s unit delivered another excellent performance.

Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan was uneasy in the pocket all game long. The Wildcats sacked Morgan four times, intercepted him twice, and forced a fumble. The three turnovers led to 10 Northwestern points.

Meanwhile, Travis Whillock and Paddy Fisher, the duo from Katy, Texas, combined for 26 tackles. After starting the season on special teams, Whillock led the team in tackles for the third consecutive week. Fisher tallied the first sack of his career, and his competitive on-field nature carried over to the press conference.

“Just playing relentless,” Fisher said, asked about how NU was able generate pressure. “Playing with that chip on our shoulder. Playing like champions as we’ve been preaching. Backing our talk.”

Facing 1,000-yard receiver Tyler Johnson without three starting defensive backs, Northwestern had some trouble defending the pass Saturday, but the Wildcats’ bend-don’t-break defense was on full display. Minnesota moved the ball well at the beginning of drives, finding themselves inside the Northwestern’s 40-yard-line on six occasions.

But the Wildcats — who allow only 4.12 points per scoring opportunity, 35th in the country — stood tall. Minnesota failed to score on three of those five possessions, twice turning the ball over on downs in NU territory. Northwestern’s run defense was particularly stout, stopping Minnesota four of seven times in third or fourth and short scenarios.

“I think it just kind of gives us that chip on our shoulder, knowing that we’re kind of backed up but knowing that we have the opportunity to make that stop,” Whillock said of the defense’s mentality.

The Wildcats were also the beneficiaries of two early turnovers by Morgan, both coming on interceptions by Nate Hall. The senior, who missed three games earlier this season with a lower-body injury, dove to pick off a deflected pass on Minnesota’s second drive, then expertly back-pedaled and high-pointed Morgan’s arcing pass on the next series. Isaiah Bowser scored four plays later to give NU the lead.

All signs point to Northwestern continuing to play the underdog card headed into Illinois gameweek.

“I started the week getting asked questions about our guys not being focused to play and it was insulting,” Fitzgerald said. “It really pissed us off. That’s the way we approached it and we’re going to approach it again this week.”

Critics would be hard-pressed to find a way to take away from Northwestern’s defense, which has allowed just 14 points per contest in its last four Big Ten games. The chip on the unit’s collective shoulder is as heavy as ever, though.

“That’s just how it is every week and that’s how we wanted it to be every week,” Fisher said. “That fuels us and I love it, man. Bring it on.”