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Ten plays that allowed Northwestern to come back and beat Minnesota

It took a collective effort, and some unforced errors, to erase such a massive hole.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

As the final seconds of the third quarter dwindled from the Ryan Field clock, the contingent of Northwestern students occupying the stadium’s student section for the first time in 2023 did the same. Through three quarters of play in the Wildcats’ Big Ten opener, NU was trailing Minnesota 31-10, a deficit nearly impossible to overcome in such little time — after all, UMN had a 97.1% chance to win to start the period, per ESPN Analytics.

Probabilities be damned. Northwestern did just that, erasing a three-score hole thanks to sharp, clutch defense and a near-heroic performance by quarterback Ben Bryant. The ‘Cats outscored the Golden Gophers 27-3 in the final quarter of the game and overtime, garnering their largest comeback since erasing a 25-point deficit against Indiana in 2009, per release.

While Bryant’s pass to a wide open Charlie Mangieri on a tight end leak sealed the improbable, indelible comeback, that play was far from the only one that swayed momentum in a purple direction. Here are ten snaps in chronological order — particularly beyond the ordinary — that proved instrumental in allowing Northwestern to win its first Big Ten home game in nearly two full years.

12:01, fourth quarter: Cam Porter’s touchdown run

The Wildcats truly needed to punch the ball in the end zone from this down and distance, and with such urgency, and they did just that.

NU began in a diamond formation, with Porter behind Bryant, and Thomas Gordon and Mangieri lined up as fullbacks. From there, Gordon motioned over to the right side of the line, while Mangieri moved over as a traditional FB. Out of I formation, Porter found space courtesy of a good block from Ben Wrather and a nice double from Caleb Tiernan and Josh Priebe.

10:42, fourth quarter: Athan Kaliakmanis throws incomplete on third-and-seven

While Northwestern’s offense put pressure on Minnesota to gain first downs and retain possession, the Wildcats’ defense recognized it bore the burden of getting the ball back to Bryant & Co. After two nice tackles of Darius Taylor by Xander Mueller and Coco Azema, NU forced a third-and-long.

Playing zone, the ‘Cats’ defenders did a nice job sifting through routes, leaving no separation for Kaliakmanis. Up front, Jaylen Pate’s strong pursuit chased down Kaliakmanis, forcing him to throw the ball out of bounds — which set up a punt.

9:46, fourth quarter: Bryant finds Kirtz for a 17-yard touchdown

If you want a dictionary definition of “taking over a drive,” look no further than what Kirtz did on this series.

After accruing 21 yards on a post-corner route and 31 more on a gorgeous fade, Kirtz set up the Wildcats at the Minnesota 17 in a heartbeat. From there, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian made Kirtz Bryant’s top read yet again. Turning to a switch release, Kirtz split the safeties in Cover 3 with a clean post route, getting into the end zone for the second time on the day and in his college career.

7:06, fourth quarter: Kaliakmanis finds Brevyn Spann-Ford for three on third-and-five

The Gophers picked up a first down in just two plays, but Northwestern’s defense answered the bell yet again from there. Subsequent to two stops of Taylor, Kaliakmanis located an open Spann-Ford on a stick route, but Bryce Gallagher and Jaheem Joseph swarmed the 6-foot-7 tight end, wrapping him up before UMN could collect a new set of downs.

3:01, fourth quarter: Mueller stops Taylor on third-and-two

While the Wildcats had slowed the inexorable Taylor somewhat in the third and fourth quarters, none of it would truly matter unless they could do so on third down.

From the NU 36, Kaliakmanis again gave Taylor the rock. The freshman tried bouncing the carry outside, but Mueller covered an unbelievable amount of ground, racing over to chop down the star’s legs well short of the marker. This is a ridiculously difficult tackle, especially given the angle, speed difference and game situation — you could argue it’s the single most important play in allowing NU to gain life.

2:16, fourth quarter: Mark Crawford’s punt is downed inside the Northwestern end zone

It might have been unfathomable for a special teams play to hold this much weight, but this play definitely changed the tide in Northwestern’s favor.

Following a false start (intentional or not), Minnesota punted from the Northwestern 37, aiming to pin the ‘Cats back in their own territory. Crawford did just that with a beautiful ball bouncing right at NU’s five-yard line. Awaiting the punt was Quentin Redding, who was in perfect position to down the ball inside that territory. Instead, Redding fielded the ball on two bounces, enabling it to cross the white and give NU a touchback. That gaffe is truly inexcusable and was a swing of nearly 19 yards in field position.

1:31, fourth quarter: Bryant locates Cam Johnson on third-and-four

Possessing no timeouts and with under two minutes left, the Wildcats were in dire need of a touchdown on the ensuing possession, or risked encountering a fourth down with the game on the line.

On third-and-four, Bryant connected with Johnson on a comeback route, gaining 11 yards — and, critically, a first down. The play displays the anticipation of Bryant and overall chemistry between the two transfers, who displayed trust in one another when it mattered most.

1:06, fourth quarter: Minnesota’s Jah Joyner grabs Bryant’s facemask on a sack

Despite only rushing three and playing a prevent defense of sorts, the Golden Gophers still generated pressure against Northwestern’s offensive line. Working against Tiernan, Joyner pushed the LT back into the pocket, then used his left arm to snag Bryant — and his facemask.

Flags quickly dotted the field, turning what would’ve been a cataclysmic loss of distance and time into a major gain. The clock stopped, and Northwestern next snapped the ball from the Minnesota 48.

1:00, fourth quarter: Bryant finds Thomas Gordon for 16

The Wildcats maintained their rhythm after the temporary break. In enemy territory and understanding that he couldn’t take a sack, Bryant stayed composed, hanging in the pocket before zeroing in on an open Gordon down the field. The tight end’s second catch of the night, and this drive, secured a chunk gain and catalyzed NU’s eventual game-tying touchdown.

Overtime: Mueller stuffs Bryce Williams at the Northwestern two

It’s hard to precisely boil down this last play to only one option, but I’d lean to this outstanding job by Mueller in crunch time.

On second down, the Gophers came out in 12 personnel, with two tight ends to the right of the formation. David Braun and the Wildcats responded by putting six at the line of scrimmage. With a seven-on-seven blocking war, the Gophers emerged victorious — that is, until Mueller read the play and plugged the B gap in the blink of an eye. The linebacker’s ability to trigger, fill in the hole and wrap up Williams ultimately led to a third-down incompletion from Kaliakmanis and a field goal from Dragan Kesich.

The rest, well, is history.