Post-Game Analysis: Minnesota
by Jonathan Hodges

Well, a win's a win, especially when it comes on the road in Big Ten conference play.  The Northwestern Wildcats (5-0, 1-0) edged the Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-4, 0-1) by mounting a fourth quarter comeback, winning in their first ever trip to TCF Bank Stadium.  For the second consecutive week, Northwestern made a slew of errors but did enough to overcome them and rack up the victory.

Things started off fairly well for the 'Cats as they took their first possession 67 yards on just 4 plays ending in a 45-yard TD grab by true freshman Tony Jones, which was his first collegiate catch in his first collegiate appearance (he had a shoulder injury coming out of camp that kept him sidelined for the first 4 games of the season).  He ended the day with a solid 4 catches and 68 yards, joining true freshman wide receivers Rashad Lawrence and Venric Mark in what should be a good unit for the next few seasons.

Speaking of Mark, NU's first big error of the game came on their next possession, with the 'Cats almost at midfield on offense and the Gophers reeling on defense to that point (just 25 yards on their first 2 possessions, both ending in punts).  Mark took an end around and gained a couple of yards before being stripped as he was carrying the ball a bit awkwardly.  That seemingly awoke the Minnesota offense, who took just 2 plays to find the end zone to tie the game at 7 thanks to nobody covering RB Duane Bennett as he caught a 38 yard TD pass along the sideline.

The Wildcats would respond nicely, though, putting together a nice 5 play 74 yard drive capped by a Mike Trumpy 12 yard run to the end zone to take a 14-7 lead.  The NU offense was obviously clicking, with QB Dan Persa completing all 5 pass attempts to that point while also running for 11 yards on 2 carries.  Unfortunately, though, that efficiency would not continue through the entire game.

After forcing a three-and-out, NU got the ball back and drove down the field again, reaching the Minnesota 10 as they looked to be on the cusp of yet another touchdown.  But as Persa tucked and took off, the ball came out and was recovered by the Gophers at around the 4 yard line, essentially taking points off the board for the 'Cats.  Although Minnesota could not capitalize this time, they did show NU their offensive game plan: lots of running with some play action thrown in (the Gophers did reach 3 first downs on that drive, all on the back of their running game).

Then, the breakdowns really began as a penalty contributed to a three-and-out for the 'Cats.  On the next Minnesota drive, two NU penalties gave the Gophers big chunks of yards, while they capped it off with a halfback throw into the end zone to open TE Eric Lair, allowing Minnesota to tie the game.  Once again, penalties were burning the 'Cats, who ended up with 10 on the day for 79 yards, which came on the back of their 11 penalty game last week.

The NU offense once again moved the ball well, reaching the Minnesota 28 yard line as the 'Cats had a third-and-one before a false start pulled them back, with NU eventually turning it over on downs.  The Gophers would waste no time, going into the two-minute drill, once again helped by a Northwestern pass interference penalty, with Minnesota punching it in for a touchdown with 59 seconds before halftime.  With a 21-14 edge, Minnesota would put the 'Cats behind on the scoreboard for the first time this season.  The 'Cats were content to run down the clock knowing that they would receive the second half opening kickoff.

Northwestern had yet another efficient drive, going 80 yards in 11 plays, with the biggest being a Charles Brown catch and fumble that he thankfully recovered at the Minnesota 16 yard line for a 34 yard gain.  NU ended up punching it in with a Jacob Schmidt 1-yard run, but the placekicking issues continued as the extra point was missed, leaving the 'Cats behind 21-20.  After forcing another punt, the 'Cats put together yet another impressive 11 play drive down to the Gopher 20, but NU made its third big error of the game as Persa forced a throw on first down that was intercepted close to the end zone.

The ensuing drive really made 'Cats fans start to worry as Minnesota went on a methodical 11 play 89 yards with every play being a run save for the series-capping 25 yard TD toss from Gopher QB Adam Weber to the aforementioned Lair.  That gave Minnesota a troubling 28-20 lead with just over 12 minutes remaining in the contest.

But as they did all day, Northwestern's offense drove down the field with relative ease and put the 'Cats in position to tie as Persa found Jeremy Ebert for a 25 yard TD.  Although NU could not convert the try, they did put the game within reach, down 28-26 with over 8 minutes remaining in regulation.  And in spite of giving up a slew of rushing yards on the last drive, the NU defense held strong and got a huge sack from DE Vince Browne to force a Gopher punt after three downs, giving the 'Cats the ball at the 36 with over 6 minutes left.

The Wildcats put together another long drive, mostly on the legs of Persa who ran for 33 of NU's 54 yards on the drive, including a 22 yard scamper on a critical third-and-six outside of field goal range.  The 'Cats got the ball down to the 4 yard line, but unable to punch it in they turned to Stefan Demos to try a potential game-winning field goal.  After taking a delay of game penalty to get a better angle, Demos nailed the 27 yarder, giving the Wildcats a 29-28 lead with just over 2 minutes left to play.  It would be up to the Wildcat D to secure the win.

Minnesota got a decent kickoff return and set up at their own 38.  After a short completion and a short scramble, they had third-and-two, but called a very questionable running play that was stopped for a loss, forcing them into a must-convert fourth down.  But the Gophers ran a perfectly executed fake handoff and bootleg run from Weber that went for 16 yards, putting them within a first down or so of field goal range (noting that they were driving into the wind and their kicker was 1-of-5 on the year outside of 30 yards).  After a loss of 1 on another questionable run and two incompletions, they once again faced a critical fourth down.  NU got a good pass rush, and the ensuing pass that Weber just got off went just off of the fingertips of a Minnesota receiver short of the first down line and into the awaiting arms of NU LB Ben Johnson, who smartly slid down after securing the game-sealing interception.

Although the Wildcats did just about everything they could to lose the game (3 turnovers, with 2 coming in the red zone, 10 penalties, a missed extra point, and a turnover on downs), Northwestern came out with the victory that featured Persa bouncing back from his turnovers to drive NU for the winning score.  Although the errors were definitely troubling, the Wildcats showed their resiliency in the face of their first deficit of the year as they came back to win (on the road, nonetheless).

Player of the Game

Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert (7 receptions for 105 yards and 1 TD)  Ebert continued his run as Persa's favorite target (and the Big Ten's leading receiver with 436 yards on the season), leading all players in the game in receptions and receiving yards while also hauling in a critical touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to get the 'Cats within 2.  On that play, Persa saw the blitz coming and just heaved the ball into the end zone, leaving it up to Ebert to go up and get it.  And that he did, despite being very well covered by the defensive back, he came down with the football and the score. 

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

QB Dan Persa (23-of-30 passing for 309 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT; 17 carries for 102 yards rushing)  Persa bounced back nicely from his two red zone turnovers, accounting for 84% of Northwestern's 486 yards of total offense on the day as he led NU to a comeback win.  In spite of the errors, he showed that he can lead the 'Cats in any situation, eventually making significant gains with his feet as Minnesota dropped most defenders back into pass coverage.

Northwestern Offense: The 'Cats punted just once on the day and yielded just one sack (for -3 yards) while putting up a ton of yards on their way to victory.  Yes, there were costly turnovers, but they made up for them by going back out and continuing to move down the field.  In the end, not only did the 'Cats have 119 more yards of total offense, but NU surprisingly also outrushed the Gophers 177-165.  Yes, most yardage came from Persa, but starting RB Mike Trumpy did average 4.1 yards per carry.

Northwestern Defense:  Yes, they got burned by the run on one long drive and the play action pass most of the day, but the defense forced Minnesota punts on 6 of 11 drives (with an interception on another), and allowed just 33.4 yards per drive.  And, most importantly, they stiffened and got the stop when it mattered the most.  Despite only getting one takeaway (on the last meaningful play of the game), the NU defense did what it took to win.

What to Work on

Placekicking:  Although some of the early season issues with kicking were due to the longsnapper-holder battery, the current trend can be contributed to everybody, including Demos.  NU has now missed 3-of-16 XPs (one of those being blocked), with another XP not even tried due to a hold issue.  Demos is 7-of-10 on FGs (one was blocked) and has made just 1-of-3 outside of 40 yards.  The kicking game, particularly on the relatively easy extra points, needs to be shored up with NU likely to play in some close games down the stretch.

Red Zone Turnovers:  With 2 red zone turnovers against Minnesota, the 'Cats have 4 such turnovers on the year (all coming over the last 3 games).  Those are the types of turnovers to work to limit as they essentially take points off of the scoreboard and give opponents a chance to swing the momentum away from NU, which Minnesota definitely did this past week.

Penalties:  This almost goes without saying, especially now that the 'Cats have racked up 21 penalties for 185 yards over the past two games, with most coming due to mental errors.  Coach Fitz's teams have been known for rather disciplined play, but NU now ranks 92nd nationally in penalties per game, and this trend must come to an end against Big Ten opponents who will capitalize on any mistake that is made, including penalties.

Pass Rush:  Minnesota has what is easily the biggest offensive line NU has faced this season, and with additional blocking backs and tight ends held in, it's not surprising the 'Cats made just one sack on the day.  But in order to be successful down the stretch, especially with some relatively young players in the secondary, NU must generate more pressure on the QB up front.  In this past game, the NU DL couldn't generate enough pressure on its own and was also faked out a good bit by play action, especially after getting dinged for good chunks of yards on the ground.

Random Observations

Swing Points:  Northwestern had 2 red zone turnovers, which essentially took between 6 and 14 points off of the board.  Meanwhile, Minnesota took a page from Northwestern's book and yielded 14 points off of turnovers (the 'Cats had none in the game after entering with 53 points off of turnovers and had at least 7 in each game of the season until facing Minnesota).  That means at least 20 swing points went against Northwestern (possibly as many as 28), which obviously would have given this game a much different tune.

The Stadium:  I have to admit that Minnesota has quite a nice stadium now, with a new and sleek looking building that still has a classic feel and great amenities like a giant scoreboard and TVs throughout the concourse.  Although they stuck us visiting fans up in the northwest (coincidence?) corner, it was still a pretty good view of the action.  Of course, great weather also contributed to the nice atmosphere.

Punting:  Northwestern ranks a very respectable 23rd nationally in net punting (39.0 net yards per punt) and the field position advantage is definitely nice to have.  Minnesota, meanwhile, demonstrated that by having to kick short in order to prevent any returns, they averaged just 34.7 yards per punt on the day and rank 108th nationally in net punting for the season.  Although it's typically only noticed when things go wrong, it's worth appreciating a solid punting game since those "hidden yards" do indeed add up.

Third Down Conversions:  Northwestern has really picked up the pace on third down conversions, getting first downs on 8-of-11 third downs against Minnesota.  The offense has converted 51.4% of them on the season, placing them 14th nationally.  The defense, meanwhile, did a pretty good job holding back the tide by allowing the Gophers to convert just 3-of-11 third downs.  The defense ranks an impressive 21st nationally with a third down conversion percentage defense of just 30.8%.

Explosion Plays:  After giving up 9 plays of 20 yards or longer to Central Michigan, NU did a nice job keeping things in front of them, allowing just 4 such plays against Minnesota.  The 'Cats, meanwhile, racked up 6 of their own.

Ranking:  After moving to 5-0, Northwestern is now ranked (No. 25 in the Coaches Poll) for the first time since the end of the 2008 regular season.  Under Coach Fitz, though, NU is 1-4 while ranked (all came in the 2008 season).

Final Thought

It wasn't pretty and it marked a return to the "Cardiac 'Cats" nickname (and moved NU's record in the past 34 games decided by 7 points or less to 27-7), but a win's a win, and beating a Big Ten opponent on the road is never an easy task.  The 'Cats' ability to win on the road has propelled it to the most road wins by any Big Ten team dating back to 2008 (10).  NU will need this ability to win close games and games on the road as their schedule stiffens through the rest of the year.

While I'm sure NU celebrated its victory, they will quickly move onto their next obstacle: Purdue, who is depleted but still features a respectable defense.  The 'Cats must remain focused on the task at hand especially given the temptation to look ahead beyond the bye week that follows the Boilermakers' visit to NU.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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