With the 38-14 loss to Duke in the rearview mirror, Northwestern looked for its first Big Ten win of the season against Minnesota. Trailing 24-7 at the half, Northwestern rallied with a valiant second-half effort, eventually winning the game 37-34 in overtime. Let’s see who shined the brightest and disappointed the most against the Golden Gophers.
Finishing the game with 10 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns, Kirtz’s career-day established himself as more than just a reliable target next to A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson. With the ‘Cats down three scores in the waning minutes of the first half, Kirtz dashed past his defender hauling in an 80-yard touchdown pass to put Northwestern on the board. Bryant and Kirtz’s chemistry continued on Northwestern’s opening drive of the second half, with the pair connecting on a nine yard out route and 23 yard chunk play helping the ‘Cats to a field goal. In the fourth quarter, three consecutive catches by Kirtz led Northwestern to a three-play 69 yard touchdown drive pulling the ‘Cats to within seven with ten minutes remaining. After only catching 19 passes for 212 yards a season ago, the chemistry between Bryant and Kirtz has developed Northwestern’s number three receiver into a potentially elite playmaker.
Coming in with three shaky starts under his belt, Bryant’s 396 yards, four touchdowns and game-winning 25-yard pass in overtime to Charlie Mangieri ended any doubt of his role as Northwestern’s starter for the forseeable future. Starting the game 7-for-8, the Cincinnati transfer started off strong, finding his receivers for nice gains. Although he missed a couple deep balls to A.J. Henning in the first half, he showcased his poise leading Northwestern’s comeback effort with smart decision making, strong throws and an ability to extend plays with his legs. Bryant powered Kirtz’s big day, but his biggest throw of the evening was his game-tying 12-yard touchdown strike to Henning with two seconds remaining to set up Northwestern’s overtime victory.
What’s been a slow-ish start to the season for Azema compared to his counterpart in Devin Turner, the senior defensive back excelled against Minnesota finishing the game with a team-leading 10 tackles. Azema was everywhere early, totaling four tackles in the first quarter. The senior also displayed his speed and coverage skills, batting away a Kaliakmanis deep ball in the first half that wouldn’t have counted due to an offensive holding call. In overtime, Azema showed the physical side too, laying the boom on Minnesota wideout Corey Crooms who somehow managed to hang onto the football for a first down. Nonetheless, Azema’s speed, physicality and football IQ were on full display, holding down the back end of the ‘Cats defense throughout.
Honorable mentions: Cam Porter and Joseph Himon, Bryce Gallagher, Cam Johnson, comeback wins
Like everything with this Northwestern team, it’s one step forward, two steps backward. Last week in Durham, Northwestern only committed one penalty for eight yards. In the first half against Minnesota alone, Northwestern committed six penalties for 67 yards. After some momentum on Northwestern’s first drive, a holding call put the ‘Cats in a 2nd and 18 that they failed to recover from. On the second drive another penalty forced the ‘Cats into a 3rd and 20, leading to an AJ Henning fumble and a Minnesota touchdown on the ensuing play. Throw in multiple holding calls that took away big runs including a 30-yard scamper by Himon in the third quarter and Northwestern’s mental mistakes hampered the ‘Cats offensively, but ultimately wasn’t enough to stop Northwestern’s comeback.
After surrendering 268 rushing yards to the Blue Devils last week, it seemed like Northwestern’s run defense couldn’t get any worse. Enter Minnesota starting running back Darius Taylor. The true freshman darted past Northwestern’s defense, finishing with 198 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The Gophers finished the day with 244 yards on the ground and had five rushing plays of 10-plus yards; none bigger than a 4th and 1 from the Northwestern 43 in the third quarter — a play that started as a missed Bryce Gallagher tackle ended with Taylor in the end zone. Although the ‘Cats came away with the win, the run defense will have to step it up next week when Nick Singleton and Penn State come to Evanston next weekend.
Disrupting the quarterback
Against a quarterback that finished 11-of-29 for 133 yards and an interception against North Carolina a week ago, the ‘Cats made Athan Kaliakmanis look calm, cool and collected. The redshirt sophomore didn’t throw an incompletion in the first half, finishing the game 14-of-19 for 191 yards and two touchdowns. Northwestern’s pass rush, which hurried Kaliakmanis only twice and didn’t record a sack, coupled with struggles in the back end let Minnesota’s gunslinger find success. Overall, similarly to Gavin Wimsatt at Rutgers, the ‘Cats made a mediocre Big Ten quarterback look competent.
Honorable mentions: A.J. Henning, Brendan Sullivan’s starting QB hopes, Garnett Hollis Jr., Northwestern’s student section