Post-Game Analysis: Minnesota
by Jonathan Hodges

The Northwestern Wildcats (6-5, 3-4) have reached bowl eligibility for the fifth consecutive season as they defeated the Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-9, 1-6) by a rather comfortable 28-13 margin with an explosive first quarter and some bend-but-don't-break defense down the stretch. The 'Cats scored touchdowns on their first three possessions of the game while the defense allowed just one TD, on Minnesota's first possession. Northwestern never trailed, and, in fact, last trailed early in the first quarter at Inidana - during the first game of their active four game winning streak. The defense forced four punts, grabbed two takeaways, held Minnesota to under 50% on third down conversion attempts, while the offense came out of its shell when it needed to, putting the icing on the cake on a 15-play 80-yard drive in the third quarter to tack on their final TD, while putting together another impressive 13-play drive in the fourth to bleed 6:18 off the clock and essentially end the Gophers' chances.

Now that the 'Cats have the bowl eligibility question behind them, they can all but lock up a bowl bid with a win next Saturday against Michigan State, who clinched the Legends Division title and a spot in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game due to their win and Nebraska's loss to Michigan. While the Spartans won't be needing a win to get to the aforementioned title game, they will certainly be looking to go into the championship game with momentum while also bolstering their resume as they must compete with other top tier Big Ten teams for a bowl spot if they don't win that game. So don't expect to see a late-season NFL game after one of the participants has clinched; this is still Big Ten football and pride is always at stake.

But for the next few moments, Northwestern and its fans can certainly celebrate a well-earned sixth victory of the season and begin to seriously ponder the still-confusing bowl picture before turning all of their focus on the Spartans (after Thanksgiving dinner, of course).

First Half Summary

Northwestern got a fast start in this one thanks to a couple of nice 40+ yard returns from the speedy Venric Mark. His first was a return of 44 yards to set up the 'Cats just four yards shy of midfield, and the Wildcats quickly moved their way down the field and capped the drive with a short pass from Dan Persa to Kain Colter that Colter subsequently took in from seven yards out to put NU up 7-0. When Minnesota got the ball next, it looked like we'd be in for a barn-burner as the Gophers quickly picked up two first downs on Duane Bennett power runs with MarQueis Gray completing a long 29 yard pass to the dangerous DaJon McKnight on third down to set up inside the NU 10 yard line; Gray would eventually punch it in himself to tie the game.

But, the 'Cats would answer again thanks to a 42 yard return form Mark; NU would convert on fourth down thanks to a nice run from Jacob Schmidt, and on the second fourth down of the drive, the Wildcats would find the end zone on a 28 yard Persa pass to Demetrius Fields into the wind (Fitz would say after the game that the cutoff for a FG try into the wind was at about the 23 yard line). Northwestern would never look back from here.

NU got a nice start again thanks to a horribly shanked nine-yard punt from Minnesota after a three-and-out, and NU used a nice mix of Persa and Colter behind center to move the ball down to first-and-goal from the four yard line, with Treyvon Green taking it in off the option pitch to give NU a 21-7 lead with just about 2:30 left in the first quarter. Though things would fizzle a bit from there for the NU offense, the defense would hold up even with Minnesota sticking to a somewhat successful ground attack.

Persa threw an ill-advised pass while scrambling that was intercepted, but the NU defense held after Minnesota reached the NU 11 yard line and the Gophers had to settle for a field goal. The teams would then trade punts until the end of the first half, with NU still sitting on a comfortable 11 point lead.

Second Half Summary

The third quarter would see a couple of key plays keep the Gophers off the scoreboard: on Minnesota's first drive, they were moving the ball well, having set up first-and-10 from the NU 28, when Brian Peters forced a Bennett fumble with his helmet, and NU recovered to avoid significant damage; though the 'Cats went three-and-out on the ensuing drive, Brandon Williams boomed a 77 yard punt that was downed at the Minnesota seven yard line (77 yards is his career long). On NU's next possession, the 'Cats gave up the ball at the Minnesota 37 when Colter and Green botched a handoff, and Minnesota promptly drove down to first-and-goal at the NU six thanks to their longest pass play of the day, a 31 yarder. But the NU D came up huge again as they stopped Bennett on first down, got a four yard TFL on second, and then Brian Peters grabbed an interception in the end zone on third after an Ibraheim Campbell deflection (that despite Peters having one hand completely wrapped due to a broken metacarpal). These two key takeaways helped keep Minnesota at bay long enough for the NU offense to find its momentum again.

On the next possession, the 'Cats churned their way down the field thanks to three third down conversions and one fourth down conversion (on fourth-and-six nonetheless); the drive would take 15 plays and last 4:38 as NU hit paydirt with Jacob Schmidt to take a three-possession lead with just over 11 minutes remaining in regulation. A couple of nice plays by Minnesota's Gray (a 19 yard run and a 23 yard pass) set them up well but the NU D would not break, holding them to a FG again to maintain a 28-13 lead. Then, the NU offense went to work again, this time with yet another time-killing drive: this time a 6:18 13-play drive that ended two yards short of converting a fourth down, but stuck the Gophers deep at their own nine yard line. Minnesota would throw three consecutive incomplete passes near midfield after clocking the ball, and NU would retake the football to set up in victory formation and savor the sixth win of the year.

Player of the Game

Northwestern S Brian Peters (11 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 interception) Peters tied for the team lead in tackles, including getting one behind the line of scrimmage, and single-handedly (pun intended) took care of NU's two takeaways on the day. Though the defense was gashed on the ground at times, they held when it mattered most and took the ball away when it looked like the Gophers could get back into the game. Peters rightly deserves a ton of credit for grabbing those turnovers and helping to propel the 'Cats to a bowl-eligibility-clincing victory.

What Happened

"if NU can duplicate the all-around effort from the past two weeks, they should reach bowl eligibility with ease"

Northwestern did get that all-around effort, with the special teams kicking things off in the return game, the offense piling on points early and running down the clock late, and the defense holding back the tide in between with a couple of crucial takeaways.

"The NU defense is riding high and look for the 'Cats to keep Gray contained while dialing up pressure on obvious passing downs in order to keep his completion rate low (it's 51.7% on the year). If NU can accomplish that, then some turnovers will likely come their way"

Although NU didn't keep Gray contained on the ground (he led all runners with 147 yards), they did great against the pass, allowing just 124 passing yards, a 42.9% completion rate, grabbed an interception, and had two sacks as well as three QB hurries.

The Gophers have a lot of fight but will only be able to spoil NU's bowl eligibility party if the 'Cats make mistakes and decide to mail it in opposite of last week's workman-like performance.

The 'Cats certainly didn't mail it in and instead made big plays when they needed them (50% of third downs converted along with 3-of-4 fourth downs, plus two big takeaways) and came away with another comfortable victory to reach that key sixth win of the year.

Northwestern Honorable Mentions

RB Jacob Schmidt (13 carries for 69 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 1 TD; 1 catch for 5 yards) Schmidt quietly had a very solid game with a nice 5.3 yards per carry and the game-icing TD in the fourth quarter. He will certainly be looking for redemption next week against Michigan State; last year his fumble just inches before hitting paydirt essentially changed the momentum in the game (NU had a 17-0 lead at that point) while he also injured his ankle on that play that kept him out for the remainder of the season.

KR Venric Mark (2 kickoff returns for 86 yards) Mark's two returns on the day really helped NU get started, giving them the ball near midfield on their first two possessions (the 'Cats would score a TD on both drives). Though he has been quiet in recent weeks, those returns really helped set the tone for the 'Cats and put them in front to stay.

What to Work on

Run Defense: The Wildcats yielded 5.6 yards per carry after removing NU's two sacks, with Minnesota's Bennett running for 127 yards on a lot of inside runs and Minnesota piling up 274 yards before sacks. While NU won't have to face a dual-threat QB like Gray when the face MSU this coming week (MSU QB Kirk Cousins has -90 net rushing yards on the year), they will certainly have to contend with a duo of solid running backs who excel in the traditional running game. The 'Cats have shown the ability to contain the run (particularly against Nebraska and Rice), and they'll need to get back to that when they face the Spartans if they want to pull off another upset of a highly ranked team.

Turnovers: NU's two turnovers didn't inflict too much damage (only 3 points allowed off of the ensuing drives), but they certainly hurt the 'Cats' offensive momentum as both came in Gopher territory and kept the 'Cats off of the scoreboard in both the second and third quarters. Against better opposition in the coming week, the Wildcats will need to avoid mistakes at all costs as the MSU defense is one of the best in the conference, ranking second in the Big Ten in scoring defense and first in total defense. Thankfully, Persa has his legs more under him now and will hopefully choose to use them instead of making ill-advised throws, while Colter will hopefully learn from this experience and be more careful on exchanges.

Random Observations

Historic Stats

As noted elsewhere on HailToPurple, this was the first time ever that Northwestern has come back from a five-game losing streak to attain a .500 or better regular season record. Also, this 15-point win over the Gophers is NU's largest over Minnesota since winning 41-20 in Evanston in the fall of 1971.


Northwestern has maintained its active streak without trailing, which now stands at 233 minutes and 19 seconds of football game clock dating back to early in the first quarter at Indiana, the first game of the current four-game winning streak. Northwestern has now been tied or in the lead during 73.8% of game clock this season.

This is the third time under Fitzgerald that Northwestern has won at least four straight games (his two previous were five game winning streaks), but Fitz has never led NU to five consecutive wins over FBS opponents (both previous streaks included one FCS win each). The last five game NU winning streak over FBS teams was in 1996, whose team was honored at Ryan Field in this game with Gary Barnett and various teammates of Fitz in attendance and involved with team activities.


Northwestern had zero penalties against the Gophers and now ranks third nationally in fewest penalties per game (3.82) and second nationally in fewest penalty yards per game (32.27); they are first in the conference in both categories. This was the first game in which NU had no penalties since Fitz's second game as head coach (against New Hampshire in 2006).

Bowl Positioning

Now that NU has finally reached that all-important sixth win, I will finally begin discussing bowl positioning. For up-to-the-date projections and discussion, stay tuned to the HailToPurple Bowl Page.

NU has a very good chance of going to a bowl as there will definitely be open spots thanks to Army and Navy not being eligible and Miami (FL) self-imposing a ban this season (their conference, the ACC, was the backup to Army in their bowl slot) and a Big Ten team will certainly be desired above non-AQ teams (which will be the likely competition for those at-large spots). But, the 'Cats could very well end up in a Big Ten affiliated bowl thanks to a slew of upsets this weekend (which were quite fun to watch, by the way) coupled with Michigan's win: if the Wolverines can beat the Buckeyes on Saturday (for the first time since 2004) then they will be set up rather nicely for a BCS at-large bid, thereby shifting the entire conference up a rung on the bowl ladder and likely landing the 'Cats in one of those spots.

A win would all but lock the 'Cats into a spot above both the Illini (currently 6-5 but on a 5-game losing streak) and Boilermakers (5-6 and facing Indiana to try and reach bowl eligibility), which may mean a trip to Houston or a repeat trip to Dallas if the cards fall right. Many are still uncertain what will happen to Penn State if they lose to Wisconsin on Saturday (the winner goes to the Big Ten Championship to face MSU; the conference championship game winner goes to the Rose Bowl, of course, with the loser not allowed to fall below the Gator Bowl), as they are certainly somewhat undesirable after recent events. Iowa (currently 7-4 and facing Nebraska) and OSU (6-5 and playing Michigan) would likely be taken before NU even if they end up with the same or worse record than the 'Cats.

The 'Cats could lock in a spot with a win on Saturday, but even if they lose they will likely get a bid, though in that case Detroit would be the most likely (an at-large would be more desirable but less probable). In any case, NU should get a shot to break that bowl losing streak this season.

Final Thought

It wasn't too exciting, but that was perfectly fine as the 'Cats built a large lead early then rode it out with some good defensive play and an offense that was able to run the clock in the fourth quarter and get another TD to put the icing on the proverbial cake. It is somewhat satisfying to reach that bowl-eligible sixth win, particularly after that heart-wrenching five game losing streak, but with this group of seniors it would certainly be better to see them sailing into a bowl game with five straight victories and competing for an eighth on the year. Now, they have put themselves in a position to make some noise going into bowl season, and a win would certainly move them up the bowl ladder. Enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner and then hopefully enjoy the game on Saturday.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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