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Rapid Reaction: Down 21, Northwestern completes thrilling comeback over Minnesota with 37-34 overtime win


@NUFBFamily | Twitter

There are simply no words to describe it. On a day in which freshmen are fully inducted into campus, a day with so many other games that received far more media attention, the Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 1-1 B1G) came back from three touchdowns down to defeat Minnesota (2-2, 1-1 B1G) in overtime.

It’s almost impossible to imagine. Ben Bryant, who had thrown for just 408 yards in the team’s first three games, threw for an astounding 396 and four touchdowns. Bryce Kirtz, who had just 212 receiving yards total last season, had 215 (third all-time in program history) on this most incredible of nights. And the Northwestern Wildcats, a team that no one expected anything of, stormed back from a 21-point deficit with 13 minutes to play en route to a 37-34 win.

There’s no real way to explain it. Minnesota QB Athan Kaliakmanis completed 14 of his 19 passes for a pair of scores and 191 yards, and freshman running back Darius Taylor tallied 198 yards and a pair of touchdowns. This was not a game anyone would have expected Northwestern to win. And yet in the end, expectations did not matter. The only thing that mattered was what happened on the field.

On the first drive, Bryant immediately gave the freshmen something to cheer about. A third-down strike to Cam Johnson moved the sticks and pushed the Wildcats to their own 37. A few plays later, Bryant showed off the variety in his skill set, completing a pass to A.J. Henning and scrambling for eight yards on a third-and-long. Despite Bryant’s efforts, though, David Braun elected to send out the punt team on fourth and one from the Northwestern 47.

When the Gophers took over, they elected to feed Darius Taylor early and often. Taylor touched the ball on Minnesota’s first three completed plays, and was part of a play-action fake on the fourth. That fake led to a wide open Daniel Jackson, who brought the ball into Wildcat territory for the first time.

After Minnesota crossed midfield, however, the Wildcat defense stiffened. Bryce Gallagher helped shore up the run defense with a key third-down tackle, and the Golden Gophers elected to punt from plus territory. Halfway into the first quarter, both teams had already punted less than 55 yards from the opposing end zone.

Northwestern’s second possession was filled with miscues. After a strong play action to open the drive, Duke Olges committed a late hit on the next play. A few plays later, things quickly went from bad to worse after Bryant found Henning on a screen on the ensuing third-and-20.

Henning couldn’t hold on to the football, and it squirted loose at the Wildcats’ 15. Defensive lineman Kyler Baugh jumped on the ball, and Minnesota was even quicker to capitalize. Quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis threw a strike to Lemeke Brockington to give his squad the early 7-0 lead.

The Henning connection was still off on the next drive. Bryant missed him on a deep post for the second time in the quarter, then threw two more incompletions. After starting 4-for-4, Bryant slumped to 7-of-11 as Northwestern punted for the second time in the opening quarter.

Luckily for the ‘Cats, Minnesota’s offense also wasn’t clicking. After consecutive 100-yard performances, Taylor was struggling to find holes in the Wildcat defensive front. His three touches on Minnesota’s third drive resulted in a mere six yards, and this time it was the Golden Gophers punting for the second time in the first quarter.

Cam Porter, on the other hand, was finding holes. The senior back carried the ball on three of the next four plays, gaining a total of 15 yards. Thanks to Porter and an 11-yard tote from Henning, the Wildcats moved from their own 5-yard line to their own 30 as the first quarter ended. However, a pass to Henning wasn’t enough to move the chains, and once again, Hunter Renner came out to punt.

The field flip at the quarter break seemed to also flip a switch for the Minnesota offense. After a hold on the first play, the Golden Gophers began picking up yards in bunches. Two Taylor runs followed by a play-action pass set Minnesota up in Northwestern territory. A beautiful one-handed grab by Corey Croombs moved them to the doorstep of the red zone, setting up Taylor. Five carries and 22 yards later, the true first-year spun into the end zone and doubled the Minnesota lead to 14-0.

The Northwestern offense did its best to respond, and its best looked pretty good. Marshall Lang hauled in a pass over the middle for a 15-yard gain, and Henning followed it up with a seven-yard scamper on a jet sweep. However, a few plays later, Jack Henderson blitzed from his cornerback spot, and the Wildcats failed to pick it up. They also failed to convert the third-and-long brought up by the six-yard sack, and punted for the third straight drive.

Taylor continued to gash the Wildcat defense, picking up 18 yards on the second play of the ensuing drive. By the end of the first half, he had tallied 21 touches for 155 yards. One of the biggest ones came a few plays after the 18-yarder, when he took a handoff up the middle for 25 yards and set up shop in the red zone. On the next play, Kaliakmanis threw a missile across his body to Daniel Jackson, pushing the lead to 21-0 with just under three minutes to go in the first half.

With the lead now pushed to three possessions, Northwestern needed a big play. They got it almost immediately. After a five-yard loss on first down, Bryant escaped pressure and found Bryce Kirtz deep down the right sideline. Kirtz sprinted the rest of the way for an 80-yard score to break the shutout and cut the deficit back to 14.

Minnesota realized the big-play game was quite fun, and got in on it themselves. On the first snap from scrimmage, Taylor burst free again and rambled for 41 yards. But the ‘Cats were able to shore up the defense and force a third-and-long, on which Kaliakmanis scrambled to set up a fourth-and-8, and a 50-yard field goal try for Dragon Kesich. The senior kicker, who was already 3-for-3 on extra points, continued his perfect night by booting the ball through the uprights.

With just over a minute to go before the halftime break, Northwestern was unable to mount a second straight scoring drive. Renner punted once again after a three-and-out, and Minnesota took the ball and the 24-7 lead into the half.

The Wildcats came out of the locker room hot. After the defense forced a quick punt, Bryant connected with Kirtz twice to get back into Gophers territory. After that, the Cincinnati transfer received a lateral from Jack Lausch, then threw it back to Lausch, who got back to the line of scrimmage before losing the football. Somehow, though, Northwestern recovered and picked up a first down. A sack of Bryant meant that the drive stalled out before the end zone, but Jack Olsen booted a 37-yard kick through to cut the Minnesota lead to 24-10.

Minnesota was then forced to punt again, but this time, the ‘Cats couldn’t take advantage. A holding call wiped out a big play and set the team behind the chains, and Northwestern had to punt back to UMN with under 20 minutes to play in the game.

The Gophers slammed the door on any comeback hopes almost immediately. On a fourth-and-1 from the Wildcat 43, Taylor ran right through the middle, right through the heart of the defense, and right into the end zone for his second score of the day. The touchdown put Minnesota up 31-10, extinguishing any remaining hope the Northwestern faithful may have had.

Despite hope being all but gone, the team’s talent was clearly remaining. In response to the score, the Wildcats put forth one of their own, with Cam Porter charging in from a yard out. The drive took up just over five minutes of game time and covered 75 yards in 11 plays, and was almost certainly the most impressive drive of the game for the team.

After Minnesota’s third punt in four drives, Bryce Kirtz decided to simply take over the game. With roughly 11 minutes to play, Kirtz had already tallied seven catches for 146 yards and a score. When Northwestern took over, he immediately caught a 21-yard pass down the right sideline. The next play, the senior caught a pass down the right sideline for 31 yards. The play after that, he cut through the middle of the defense and caught his second touchdown of the game from 17 yards out. Kirtz’s statline with 9:46 to play: 10 catches, 215 yards, two scores. And Minnesota’s lead, just like that, was cut to just seven.

The Golden Gophers continued their second-half struggles on offense. After yet another punt, their fourth of the half, UMN needed its defense to make a stop, which it had only done once in the second half. Northwestern, conversely, would have 80 yards to go to tie up the game.

The Wildcats would get 10 of those yards after Bryant scrambled on third-and-9 to move the chains. However, on the next third down, Bryant would have to go into the medical tent after taking a hit while throwing an incompletion. Renner’s seventh punt of the day died at the Minnesota 33, and the Wildcats defense had to come out onto the field for one last stop.

It was a stop they would get. After a Kaliakmanis keeper that got 19 yards, Minnesota wound up with a third-and-2 from the Northwestern 36. Taylor ran right, and was met by Xander Mueller, who ran the fastest sprint of his life to wrap Taylor up behind the line. Minnesota punted once again from plus territory (an extremely questionable decision), and once again, Northwestern was just 80 yards from a tie with 127 seconds to play.

Bryant converted a third-and-4 with a strike to Cam Johnson, pushing the ball past the 35. Two plays later, Bryant’s facemark was grabbed by Minnesota’s Jah Joyner, moving the Wildcats past midfield. Bryant then threw to Thomas Gordon for another first down, putting Northwestern inside the Minnesota 40.

After a holding penalty, Northwestern faced third-and-12 from the 39. Bryant found Gordon again on the right side of the field, and Gordon rumbled all the way down to the 23 yard line with 18 seconds to play. The next play, Bryant evaded pressure and found Henning to put Northwestern on the 12, with eight seconds to play after a Bryant spike. After an incompletion to Johnson, there were five seconds left. One play for overtime.

The play was to Henning. The two transfers, both with their ups and downs throughout the year, connected with two seconds to play in the ballgame. Olsen’s kick was true, and the Wildcats, despite being down 21 points with just over 12 minutes to play, had tied the game. Northwestern, somehow, was heading to overtime.

In the first overtime, Corey Crooms put Minnesota on the 10 while absorbing a massive hit from Coco Azema. But once again, the Golden Gophers elected to play conservatively. Two runs (neither of them from Taylor) and a drop later, Minnesota brought Kesisch back onto the field. His kick was good, and Minnesota took the lead. But settling for a field goal also meant Northwestern could win with a touchdown.

They only needed one play to do just that. After a beautiful play action fake, Bryant lofted a ball to Charlie Mangieri, who was sitting on the left side of the field without a single defender in his zip code. Mangieri waltzed into the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown to provide Northwestern its second win, and the crowd jumped the fence and stormed the field to complete the comeback. It was NU’s first Big Ten West win in Evanston since 2020.

The Wildcats will look to win two games in a row for the first time since 2021 against No. 7 Penn State, which heads to Ryan Field next Saturday for an 11 a.m. CT game. The game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.