EVANSTON — Winning was fun while it lasted.
Northwestern football (2-9, 0-8 B1G) fell 38-22 to the Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-1, 7-1) on Senior Day, failing yet again to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Despite finding offensive momentum at times in the middle of the game, Pat Fitzgerald’s crew ultimately could not recover from a very slow start. Minnesota picked apart the Wildcats’ defense both on the ground and through the air, with NU allowing 422 total yards on the day and forcing only a single punt.
When Hunter Johnson left the game in the first half with an injury, fourth-string quarterback Andrew Marty entered the game and led the Wildcats to a level of offensive success against a competitive opponent that has been difficult for NU to come by this season. Marty finished the day going 8-of-10 for 95 yards and a touchdown, adding on two rushing touchdowns on 16 carries for 52 yards.
Northwestern started off offensively as it has for most of this season — by going three-and-out multiple times in a row. Meanwhile, the Golden Gophers capitalized on a lethargic Northwestern defense. On its first possession of the game, Minnesota put together a solid 10-play, 66-yard drive ending in a 19-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Morgan to Rashod Bateman, giving them an early lead.
Northwestern struggled to find a response to Minnesota’s electric pass game. Chunk plays were an issue for the Wildcats, allowing the Gophers to march downfield twice more to extend their lead to 21 with touchdowns from Shannon Brooks and Bateman.
After Minnesota took a three score lead, Northwestern was in desperate need of points. On the first play with the ball back in Northwestern’s hands, Johnson was pummeled by Antoine Winfield Jr., who forced a fumble that was recovered by Drake Anderson and resulted in a loss of 20. Johnson, who was under constant duress from exotic Minnesota blitzes across his short stint of action, was hurt on the play, and Andrew Marty replaced the transfer quarterback.
After the first four drives from either side, Morgan was 9-for-10 with 135 yards and two touchdowns, while HJ was 0-for-2, had rushed four times for -40 yards (including three sacks) and was forced out of the game.
Northwestern finally got the jump start it needed midway through the second quarter. Joe Gaziano forced a flag for intentional grounding by Morgan, which both resulted in a safety and broke Casey Dailey’s 28-sack record from 1997. The Wildcats finally seemed ready to play.
Following Gaziano’s sack, Marty marched the Wildcats downfield, putting together a 14-play, 69-yard drive that was capped off with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Jace James. The drive included multiple big plays (by Northwestern’s standards) including an 11-yard pass to Malik Washington, a 13-yard run from Jesse Brown and an 11-yard run from Marty. Northwestern successfully completed the nine-point swing and cut the Minnesota lead to 12.
For the rest of the half, the teams went back and fourth. A Blake Gallagher interception provided the Wildcats with another scoring opportunity at the end of the half, but Northwestern could not capitalize on it. The 21-9 score would hold at the break.
Minnesota opened the second half as strongly as it did the first with a 73-yard drive and Bateman’s third touchdown of the day. However, this time Northwestern responded immediately with a solid 64-yard drive that ended with a two-yard rushing touchdown from Marty to cut the lead back to 12.
In the fourth, Minnesota was driving yet again, but it looked like Northwestern would hold them to a field goal attempt after stringing some solid defensive plays together. However, a pass interference penalty on Paddy Fisher on third and long gave the Golden Gophers a second chance. The drive ultimately resulted in a 17-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson. Minnesota led 35-16 with 13 minutes to play and effectively put the game to rest. Minnesota tacked on a field goal at the end of the fourth to extend the lead to 22.
With under three minutes to play, NU’s window of opportunity was essentially closed, but a 40-yard pass from Marty to Riley Lees ultimately set up a one-yard Marty touchdown rush. After a failed two-point conversion attempt, the 38-22 score would ultimately hold.
Northwestern will play its final game of the season next weekend in Champaign against Illinois. A chance to retain the HAT is all that remains.